It started because Justin decided to set up a dating profile for Jesse against his will. “Dude,” said Justin, “you have cats. You’re a single twenty-something dude with cats. We have got to get you a date.”
It was a slow day at the firm and Justin tended to get douchey when he was bored and there was no one around to flirt with. He was great at bringing in new clients because he was amazingly charming when he wanted to be, but underneath all that charm was a tremendous layer of jackass. Somehow Justin had decided it was his job to drag Jesse kicking and screaming out of the comfort of staying home in his apartment all the time and into the world of... well... Today it looked like internet dating.
Jesse scowled a little and fidgeted with the sleeve of his jacket. “Only two cats,” he said, because the foster cats who went in and out didn’t count. “What are you doing? Seriously, eHarmony? Don’t do that! What are you doing? That’s a company computer. This is such a bad idea.” Justin cackled with glee and started typing, using his elbows to keep Jesse away from the desk.
“Twenty-five,” said Justin. “Male. Single. Seeking a dude hottie.” He stopped and looked at Jesse. “That’s right, right? Or have I totally been misreading your terrible flirting with Steve from payroll when he pops in here once a month?”
Jesse tried to reach for the keyboard and Justin knocked his hand away. “That’s just... I mean. My therapist thinks I need to get more practice interacting with other people my age. This may come as a surprise to you, but I can be a little bit awkward,” Jesse said.
Justin snorted. “Save your hilariously dry sense of humor for when you’re flirting through email. Also, you didn’t answer my question. Dudes: yay or nay?”
“I don’t believe in putting myself in a box--”
“That totally means you’re gay gay gay,” said Justin, typing again. Sometimes it seemed ludicrous that Justin brought so many millions of dollars worth of clients to the firm. “In three years the only person I’ve seen you even try to pick up was a doofus in a sweatervest from payroll. Clearly we need to throw you in to the deep end. Do we have a decent picture of you? I mean, in the entire world is there a decent picture of you? Some kind of sexy geek thing. Glasses, maybe? To hide all the...” He gestured vaguely toward Jesse’s face.
“You’re not making me feel any better,” said Jesse. Justin was kind of a friend, because they worked together and he didn’t make Jesse feel entirely like a broken robot with a bad emotions chip, but he was also a self-centered jackass.
Justin sighed. “The point is not to make you feel better, the point is to get you laid, which will make you feel better and get you to stop moping at work and adopting cats. No man needs that many cats.”
“I like my cats,” Jesse said. “My cats have never tried to sign me up for eHarmony. What are you typing? My hobbies are not watching indie bands or collecting ironic t-shirts.”
“Well, they should be,” Justin said, mostly ignoring him. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m going to set it so there’s no picture for now. Once you get to know someone you can ‘reveal your picture’ to them.”
“Thank you so much for confirming my belief that I’m basically a troll,” said Jesse.
Justin waved him off. “This is about matching you on deeper levels, man. This is about meeting your soul mate. This is about you having somewhere to go on a Saturday night so I don’t feel bad when I’m out at the club.”
Justin was so full of shit. And only partially because Jesse didn’t even believe in the concept of love and soul mates; he was pretty sure people just dated until they found someone who was the minimum level of tolerable and then stuck it out together because they thought it was better than an apartment full of cats. But Jesse had made his peace with the cats, no matter what his therapist said. And Justin definitely didn’t feel bad about leaving Jesse behind when he was out clubbing.
“It’s about how unlikely two human beings are to meet in New York City,” said Jesse, “unless one of them is giving the other one directions for the subway.”
“You don’t meet anyone because you never leave your apartment,” said Justin.
“I like my apartment,” Jesse protested. “All my stuff is there.”
“And your cats. It’s creepy. I’m gonna get you a date and I’m gonna get you laid and you’re gonna name your first adopted gay-ass kid Justin Randal Timberlake the Second.” Jesse lunged for the keyboard again but Justin had already hit ‘submit.’ “Bam!” said Justin, holding up his arms in victory.
“This is going to be awful,” said Jesse.
“Oh please,” said Justin. “There are so many geeks on the internet you probably seem normal. You can be their king.”
Jesse moaned and tried not to secretly wonder if maybe, possibly, Justin had gotten this idea from Jesse’s mom.
“You’ll feel better after a couple of orgasms that don’t come from your own right hand,” said Justin.
The awful part was, Jesse suspected he might.
So Jesse didn’t delete the stupid profile but he didn’t look at it, either, and every morning he woke up to twenty emails he immediately deleted that said things like, “Rick wants to contact you!” and “Message from Joe!” After a couple of days Justin got bored of looking over his shoulder at work and saying, “Well? Any luck yet? You gonna hit that?” or maybe Justin just forgot about it. Long-term thinking wasn’t Justin’s strong point.
Jesse intended to act like the whole thing wasn't happening. He wasn’t lonely; he liked being on his own, because he never surprised himself when he did something incredibly weird or awkward or wanted to put on the soundtrack to Carousel for the fourth time in a row. The idea of explaining himself to another person seemed so daunting as to make just giving up easier.
On the other hand, Jesse felt a strange sense of responsibility toward his own profile. He went back and clicked all the little buttons about his likes and dislikes and things that were important to him, so that at least all the people on the internet he was ignoring would be matched up properly with the real him. And he deleted Justin’s glib “Dork seeks love” and replaced it with “Real-life Michael Cera shut-in type seeks unlikely companionship -- Must not have allergies.”
Sometimes he was mildly tempted to look at the profiles he was being sent but work was pretty distracting; Jesse was trying to rework the investment funds of the four charities the hedge fund had taken on to improve their profiles during the recession. He’d been given those accounts because normally he felt so insanely guilty about the work he did that he ended doing things like bringing home stray cats and then having to stay with Justin while his apartment was fumigated. Working on the charities at least let him sleep at night.
It took three weekends for him to crack and finally be bored enough to click, and even then it was mostly because Justin was out at a club and sending him texts like, it’s friday night and i just got paaaaaaid followed by gonna get laid aww yeah and meet any cute nerds yet dude?????
Jesse bit his lip and fidgeted a little, digging his fingers into the arm of the couch. His therapist thought it was a great idea, and Justin sporadically remembered and bothered him about it, and he wasn’t doing anything else. It couldn’t hurt just to look. The first profile (Rick, New Jersey, 31) was a guy who clearly belonged on the Jersey Shore and Jesse clicked away again immediately. The next guy was too old, the next one was in the army, the next one looked even sadder than Jesse felt reading these profiles on a Friday night.
And then there was someone from England, of all places. Justin had clearly screwed up the “how many miles away will you date” question and Jesse hadn’t fixed it. There was a message in the email, though, and before he clicked delete Jesse figured he ought to read it.
Hi, I quite liked your profile, very funny I thought, hahaha. This is a bit awkward, isn’t it, meeting people online like this, but I’m busy and I imagine you must be busy, too. If computers make it easier I say why not? Well, really my mum says why not and I have to listen to my mum, don’t I? Perhaps you’re just listening to your mum as well, in which case please ignore all this rambling ridiculousness. Anyway. Hi. :) -Andrew
Jesse read it twice and then clicked on the profile to see who this obviously crazy person was. He was pleasantly surprised to find Andrew was cute. Or, he had a nice smile but he looked a little like a British hipster and his hair was sort of ridiculously puffy. Also, there was a picture of him riding on a Vespa, which was honestly the dumbest thing Jesse had ever seen in his life.
It couldn’t hurt just to send a message back. Jesse’s real email was hidden and he didn’t have a picture up yet or anything. Plus, this guy -- Andrew -- was in London. Jesse clicked ‘reply’ and then his heart started pounding and he had to close his laptop and take a couple of deep breaths. Raskolnikov opened an eye and yawned at him, then curled up in a ball again with his tail over his nose and went back to sleep.
Right, it was no big deal. Jesse shook his hands out and picked up his laptop again. This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done, and I listen to musicals on vinyl. Not ironically, either. My mom would be pretty excited if she knew but god willing she won’t find out. Our family has had enough tragedy already, you know, from two thousand years of wandering and all, without her hearing about this. Anyway I’m mostly replying to tell you that you need to buy a car because that Vespa is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. You’ll get bugs in your teeth. Now I sound like a neurotic New York Jew... Hey. That works, actually.
His hand hovered over the ‘send’ button. He was going to press it, and then he wasn’t, and then was, and then he wanted to rewrite the entire thing to sound like less of a douche. He pressed it finally, frantically, and then closed his eyes and hyperventilated for a minute.
“That was so, so, so dumb,” he groaned, hiding his face behind his hands. If the cats had opinions they didn’t share them.
Jesse, I think you’ll find it is you who are wrong. My Vespa is adorable and I never have to sit around in traffic. I shudder to think what it must be like driving a car in New York traffic. I’ve seen pictures of New York, which is obviously rife with mobsters and Newsies and Donald Trumps in the wild. I did notice the absolutely miserable traffic. You should consider a Vespa. I’d lend you mine but you made fun of her, and now her feelings are hurt. :(((((
When you say ‘musicals’ do you mean proper ones? Are we talking Gilbert and Sullivan or Andrew Lloyd Weber? I’m afraid I’m a bit more into music that people might accidentally hear on the radio. I think you’ve got your profile wrong; it says you’re 25, but surely you meant 85. Hope that helps!
“What are you doing?”
Jesse made a totally undignified squawking noise and nearly fell out if his chair. “Get out of my ear, Justin!” He flailed a little bit but Justin was an unmovable wall when he was curious about things. Really, Jesse should have known better than to try and read his email at work in peace. There was no such thing as a private office with Justin around.
“Who’s Andrew?” Justin demanded, leaning in farther over Jesse’s shoulder. “Is that him on the bike? Dude, he’s hot!”
Jesse tried to close his laptop but Justin had his hands all over the screen. There were going to be fingerprints. “He’s no one, it’s nothing, go away,” said Jesse.
“Aww, dude, you like him!” Justin crowed.
“I’ve exchanged a couple emails with him and he lives in London. I don’t know anything about him except he can’t punctuate and he thinks motorcycles have feelings," Jesse lied. It was weird how much he felt like he already knew about Andrew. "Please go away?”
“What you need to do,” said Justin, totally ignoring him, “is send him a naked picture of yourself. That’s how this shit works. I saw it on To Catch A Predator.”
“You must have been dropped on your head,” said Jesse.
“I send naked texts all the time,” said Justin. “It’s like catnip for the ladies.”
“You need to put up a picture or he’s going to think you’re all weird looking,” said Justin. Jesse waited patiently for the inevitable. Justin opened his mouth, hesitated, then shrugged and closed it again.
“Seriously?” Jesse asked.
“Well, when you meet him in person he’ll find out anyway,” Justin pointed out. “Why not let him know up front what he’s dealing with? If he runs screaming he’s a dick. You’re not ugly. You just kind of... stare a lot. Really intensely. Maybe you should let me buy you a hairbrush."
“Get away from me,” Jesse said, trying to wave Justin away from his hair.
“Relax, dude. You’re like, at least fifty percent less completely weird-looking than you were a few years ago.”
Jesse elbowed him in the stomach and Justin finally went away. But not before Jesse realized that Justin was sort of right; if they met in person Andrew would find out that Jesse was awkward and strange and had unruly hair. But Andrew was in London, so it probably didn’t matter at all. Who would fly intercontinentally for a date with someone they’d never even met? He felt abruptly a lot more relaxed about the whole thing. He was never going to have to try and pretend to be normal around Andrew, because he was never going to meet Andrew.
Your Vespa definitely has feelings but I’m betting they’re mostly shame, he typed. I avoid New York Traffic by riding my bike pretty much everywhere I go. It gives me the double advantage of avoiding traffic and avoiding ever having to talk to people. I like basically all musicals, although I have a soft spot for the unloved ones. Someone has to stick up for the singing underdog. It’s the same reason I have cats. Guilt. I thought about trying to come up with a cooler answer so I googled ‘cool music’ but all that came up was children’s songs. I don’t know if being into cool music for kids would make this conversation better or worse. -J
He hit send before he could think about it too much. If that didn’t scare Andrew off nothing was going to.
Hahahaha. Oh, that’s brilliant. You’re really funny. I just realised that might sound sarcastic since this is electronic text. I am not being sarcastic. Your emails make me laugh. Most of the twats on here just want to brag about how much money they make. Have you really got cats? Are you sure you meant eHarmony and not Dreadful Old Spinsters dot com? Either way I think you’re charming. Why haven’t you got a picture up? I promise I won’t stalk you. Unless you’re in to that kind of thing. (This is the internet. You never know what people might be into. I think fetishes is probably a not-until-the-third-date conversation.) Do you watch movies or travel or go out to eat? Those are my hobbies when I’m not working, except I’m never not working, which is why I'm emailing a stranger on a dating site.
I will make you a mix tape. A downloadable one. The fantastic thing about music is that you can share it with people. I quite like sharing, and I’m looking forward to a PICTURE of who I’m sharing with. And you can send me whatever dreadful musicals I should know about, but please don’t send Oliver! or Annie because I’ve heard those and they make me want to stab my ears with a chopstick. Cheers! -A
PS You should upload a picture so I know you're not secretly my mum.
The amount of time Jesse spent agonizing over which musicals to recommend was... Well. It wasn’t healthy. His therapist actually thought it was sweet (“It’s nice to see you emotionally engaging with someone!”) but she didn’t see how long he spent trying to decide which cast recording of Into the Woods was the best. There were a lot of factors to consider.
Over the course of the next two weeks he learned the following things about Andrew:
1) He thought Jesse was funny, even when Jesse was being deliberately awful and awkward and talking total bullshit.
2) He seemed pretty able to tell when Jesse was bullshitting and he rolled with it.
3) Every email dripped with the kind of cheerful happiness Jesse normally associated with Disney princesses right before they finally worked up the pluck to run away from home. Jesse was emotionally unprepared to try and reason with someone who was genuinely bubbly.
4) His pictures ranged from pretty attractive to annoyingly, stupidly attractive.
5) Jesse couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Andrew. Something had to be, didn't it? But he didn’t have any obvious blinking, flashing crazy going on. Other than liking Jesse, that was. Jesse had done everything he could to make sure the emails reflected his most hermit-like, neurotic self, and Andrew had replied with generally sweet and hilarious advice to eat healthfully, get more sleep, do nice things for his family, and find a tree to climb, because that always cheered him up.
6) He was serious about seeing a picture of Jesse. In fact he'd started adding things like, Hint hint, do you have a picture yet or are all the cameras in New York still broken you lying liar who lies? The only reason Jesse was able to make himself continue this whole farce was his confidence that he was never actually going to have to meet Andrew and try to... You know, hit on him in person, or whatever. He was morbidly curious about what might happen if he did but he was pretty sure it would end in tears. Andrew’s tears. He probably cried big Disney princess tears, too.
7) He was starting to feel like he actually knew Andrew. They were emailing every day, and Andrew kept dropping in funny little asides about his favorite bands, what he was eating for lunch, the weird British candy he liked, and how stressful his job was. (Jesse had figured out that Andrew worked for some kind of non-profit but he hadn't demanded details because he was trying not to be a creepy stalker.) Jesse was pretty sure he knew enough about Andrew to write a book, or a pamphlet at least. He'd call it In Over Your Head: How to Differentiate Between Making A Friend and Becoming Obsessed With Someone. (Andrew Wears Underwear Called Y-Fronts. Why Do I Know That?)
“I don’t get it; we’re never going to meet. Why does he keep asking me for a picture?” Jesse complained to Justin late one Tuesday when they were the only people left on their floor.
“He needs an image to jerk off to,” said Justin, mouth mostly full of take-out Indian food. Jesse groaned and wondered why he’d broken down under Justin’s relentless demands to know how online dating was going. “Just use whatever picture you have on Facebook.”
“I don’t have a Facebook,” said Jesse.
Justin groaned. “Dude. You’re the worst geek ever.”
“I’m not that kind of geek,” Jesse protested.
“I don’t even know what that means. Here. God, just let me, okay?” Justin pulled out his iPhone and scrolled through a bunch of pictures until he got to one from the Christmas party last year. He and Jesse were standing with their arms around each other in front of a Christmas-light covered copy machine, ties loose and faces a little flushed from champagne. “You look hot here, okay? I mean, at least you’re not wearing glasses and adopting a cat. I’m emailing this to you and you’re going to send it to this dude. That way he’ll know you can party and get wild.” Justin did a weird little dance in his chair.
“But I don’t get wild; I had two glasses of champagne and passed out on your couch,” Jesse said.
“Well, maybe don’t put that in the email,” said Justin. “Okay, go ahead. Do it.”
“Upload the picture! If you don’t do it while I’m watching you’ll ‘forget.’” Justin’s air quotes were particularly uncalled for, Jesse thought. Not inaccurate, just rude.
“I hate you,” said Jesse.
Justin just crossed his arms.
Jesse sighed really, really loudly to let Justin know what a bad idea this was and how much he didn’t want to do it. Justin didn’t seem particularly moved. Jesse reminded himself a few more times that it didn’t matter because Andrew was in London and opened his email.
You bring this on yourself. Here is a picture. I wanted to send you one where I had a bag over my head but I was overruled.
“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Justin asked. “Also, did you know you’ve brought in thirteen percent more revenue in the last two weeks? Being in looooove agrees with you.”
“I'm not -- I haven’t even met him, you’re insane.” Jesse scowled and closed his laptop. Justin had taken the last of the rice and the nan. “Why am I even doing this? What kind of weird voodoo mind-control do you have over me?”
“I’m helping,” said Justin smugly. “You’re my bro, and all that twitchy never-getting-laid energy drives me nuts. He digs your soul, he’s not going to care that you dress like a schlub. And if he does care I’ll take you shopping.”
Jesse almost blacked out trying to imagine how horrible that would be. “You -- I --- What -- No!”
“Pop quiz,” said Justin, mouth full of saag paneer. “Where did you buy that suit?”
Jesse looked blankly at his own shirt. “Uh... Canal Street? Two for $125.”
Justin shook his head mournfully. “Let’s just hope he’s not a fashionista or a hipster. Are you talking to anyone else online? Do you have any other prospects?”
“Uh,” said Jesse, fiddling with his plastic fork. He thought maybe Andrew was the kind of person who cared about clothes and music and coolness. “I uh. Well. I haven’t actually looked at any other profiles, but I get them in my email. I could. I just, uh. Don’t.”
Justin whistled. “This is serious. You like like him.”
“Yes,” Jesse said, “I like like him. Also, next week I hope to find some new Lisa Frank stickers in my Trapper Keeper so I can put them on the papers where I write ‘Mr. Jesse Garfield’ over and over and over.”
“Whatever floats your boat, man,” said Justin. “Don’t sweat the photo too much. You’re pretty cute. Like a stray puppy that needs to be adopted. I bet he digs it.”
“I don’t care,” said Jesse, and didn’t believe himself even for a second.
Andrew didn’t email him back right away-- it was the time difference, Jesse told himself, digging his nails into the arm of the couch -- but Jesse couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t totally insane; he knew he wasn’t Quasimodo, but he hadn’t considered what he was going to do if this whole thing fell apart. He’d started counting on Andrew’s obnoxiously cheerful emails when he woke up in the morning.
At four in the morning Jesse stopped pretending he was sleeping and pushed Mrs. Pennyfarthing off the bed so he could open his laptop. There was no email from Andrew. That was weird, usually there were two or three every day. Jesse's chest hurt.
I knew the picture was a mistake. Would you like to hear more about my cats? I am an excellent foster dad for three cats right now. They can provide me with references if you need them.
If sending the first email hadn’t been a mistake then this one definitely was. Jesse hit send and then stared at the screen for a full minute, willing Andrew to answer.
Nothing happened. Jesse’s heart was racing and he was hot all over; way too hot, especially too hot to sleep with Number Three trying to curl up on his head. He got up and made himself a cup of tea and sat looking out the window over the sun coming up behind the buildings in New York.
"Wake up," said Justin, poking Jesse's shoulder. "We have clients to talk to. Walsh wants to see you bringing in new money. I know you suck at talking to people one-on-one, but you do great presentations if you can get over your nerves, so get up. I need you."
Jesse groaned and waved one hand around in the hopes that Justin would see it and understand it meant go-away-the-coffee-isn't-working. He didn't move his head off the desk. He probably had a space bar imprint on his cheek.
"Bad news on the boy front?" Justin asked, hopping up to sit on Jesse's desk. "Yo, you mind if I steal your coffee?"
"It isn't stealing if you ask if I mind," Jesse mumbled.
"I'm a polite thief," said Justin, waggling his eyebrows. "Now tell me all about it. You have the look of a man who was up all night, and not in the fun way."
"Don't you have clients?" Jesse asked hopefully.
"Yeah, but I need coffee before I can schmooze," said Justin. "C'mon, dude. Spill."
Jesse groaned and peeled himself off the desk. "It's no big deal."
Justin snorted. "True or false, man. This guy, this Andrew guy, he knows about the cats thing, and the musicals thing, and the maps thing, and how you can't be in a car for longer than ten seconds without fucking honking at someone."
"True," said Jesse.
"And he thinks your sarcastic asides are funny instead of totally annoying, which by the way, they are."
"True. Not that last part, I mean. He knows."
Justin waved that away. "And he knows you love your mom and your grandma more than any normal guy, and he knows you never wanted to get into finance but you can't help being wicked smart, and he knows you work on the charity accounts out of guilt but you wish you did a job that was more like that all the time."
"What's your point?" Jesse asked, crossing his arms.
"The point, my friend, is that you have crossed a line." Justin nudged Jesse's knee with his sneaker. Somehow he had circumvented the normal rules of suit wearing to include his ridiculous, sparkly, expensive sneakers, and no one ever said anything about it.
"I didn't tell him my social security number or anything. I don't even know the name of his non-profit."
"No, like, an emotional line," said Justin. "He knows about the stuff that makes you twitchy. It matters to you what he thinks. He's inside your crunchy chocolate coating, all up in your creamy nougat center."
Jesse spluttered for a minute. "No, I mean, that's not… Most of our emails are just about, like, bands he likes and how I almost killed myself biking to work."
"Yeah, but that shit means something," said Justin. "How many times did I give you a CD you never listened to? But I have totally heard The Decemberists in here, and that is a my-British-hipster-boyfriend-gave-me-a-mix-tape red flag."
Jesse grabbed his coffee back so he could hide his face in the mug. Justin would know if Andrew really was a hipster, wouldn't he? Jesse had a vague idea that meant he went to a lot of parties and wore unflattering jeans, although he couldn't really imagine anything being unflattering on Andrew. But it definitely meant he cared what people looked like. And that would explain his insistence on seeing a photograph of Jesse. "He's not my boyfriend," he mumbled. "He hasn't even emailed me back about that stupid picture."
"Awww, baby, don't sweat it," said Justin. "I'm sure he loves you just as much as before he knew your tie is always crooked." He reached over and ruffled Jesse's hair before he could duck away. "Are you two having email sex yet?"
"No! Seriously, he's not my boyfriend." It was entirely possible, Jesse knew, that Andrew would not love him as much after he saw Jesse. Jesse wasn't a troll, not really, but he wasn't… Well, he wasn't Justin, either.
"It's a dating website," said Justin, rolling his eyes. "What do you think you're there for? You signed up. He signed up."
"His mom signed him up. You signed me up."
"Whatever! Tell him you want to get him off. You need some digital get-down."
Jesse said plaintively, "I just want him to email me back."
"Come on, let's go talk to some investors," said Justin, hopping off Jesse's desk. "You use the big sad puppy eyes and the magic of PowerPoint, I'll use my dazzling charm."
"What charm?" Jesse grumbled.
"Right, use your sparkling sense of humor, too," said Justin, dragging him down the hall.
Thank god!!!! You actually have a head. I was starting to worry. Actually though, if the cats are going to email me could they please let me know which of the two people in the photograph is you? They've overlooked that little detail, but I suppose that's cats for you. Also I'd like to know how you've trained them to type. When my mum's cats walk on the keyboard they mostly write ssssssssssssssssssssssssslkkl which I believe translates loosely to 'give me more cat food or I'm going to claw your face.'
Sorry for the late reply, there was a miserable crisis at work, I was there well after midnight and ended up sleeping under my desk. (My mum says this is why I can't meet anyone "in real life," and I have explained to her REPEATEDLY that you are not a figment of my imagination, although I was beginning to wonder because you seemed to be allergic to cameras. And then I pointed out that she was the one who insisted I meet someone on line and that it's actually going fine, except for your being on the wrong continent.) Which also reminds me: I am waiting for your detailed opinions on The Decemberists and Arcade Fire. Yes, I saw that The Fantasticks just opened on the West End, but no, I'm not going to go see it. It would be wasted on me; I don't know the story. Unless you want to fly out here and hold my hand and explain it to me, at least. That's a hint, by the way.
Jesse stared at the email, biting his lip and tapping his fingers restlessly against his desk. He reread the end a couple of times, the part where Andrew basically invited him to London. It was absolutely terrifying. He couldn't even pretend he was going to consider it without a horrible stress headache.
A terrible, devious idea was nagging at the back of his brain. "No," Jesse told himself. Raskolnikov stretched and yawned on the couch.
"Hypothetically," said Jesse.
Emma, Jesse's go-to lawyer in the firm, sighed and pushed her glasses up on top of her head. "Come in," she said. "Don't linger in the doorway like an unwanted guest."
Emma's office was terrifying; it was all leather and oak bookshelves and heavy dark rugs. By contrast all of Justin's ridiculous Sharper Image beeping toys seemed positively comforting. "Let's say I was considering lying to someone," Jesse said. He took a couple of steps in to her office and then stopped again, because it was making him nervous.
"Is this a business someone?" Emma asked seriously.
Jesse shook his head. "No, I… I know, there are laws, I'm not going to break the law. I mean, not unless you can find a tax loophole for it, I know we do pretty much anything for a tax loophole." Emma pursed her lips, looking faintly amused. "This is strictly a personal matter, I just…. Uh. If there was a situation where I was considering maybe just… Not correcting someone's mistaken assumption, but there was zero percent chance of my ever getting caught, and it was just… You know, a way for me to seem a little bit cooler than I actually am, and no one was going to get hurt. In that situation, how many cats do you think I'd have to adopt to stop feeling heinously guilty about it?"
"Most people are 85 percent water; you're 85 percent guilt," said Emma. "I don't know what the cat-to-guilt ratio is."
"What if I just lie by omission," said Jesse. "How bad is that? How many years in prison?"
"Honey, you're always going to be in the prison of your own crazy head, and I say that with love." Emma sighed. For a ruthless take-no-shit lawyer Jesse had always thought she was pretty sweet. At least, she was sweet to him; she wasn't quite so nice to Justin. "This doesn't sound so bad, though. Are you actively lying to someone or just letting them assume something about you?"
"Uh… Somewhere between the two," said Jesse, twisting his hands around each other. "I just… I just think maybe I'd seem a little cooler that way, and I never get to seem cool, and it kind of… Uh, it matters to me a little bit. Which I also feel guilty about, by the way."
Emma gave him a fond look that made him feel even more wretchedly bad for thinking about lying to Andrew. "I don't think you give yourself enough credit," said Emma. "You're cool, you're just not cool like Justin is cool. But that's nice, because it means you're also not a jackass all the time. Anyone who doesn't love you just the way you are is wrong."
"Yeah, but…" Jesse started, and then stopped himself. "I mean, this has no practical consequences in the real world, so it doesn't matter, right?"
"If it didn't matter I don't think you'd be talking to me," said Emma.
Jesse groaned and hid his face against the wall.
"Okay, fine, I take it back," said Emma. "If this lie will help you get through the day without melting down completely then you should do it. But I think you are totally perfect just the way you are."
"Thank you," Jesse mumbled.
"And for the record, if you ever lie or perjure yourself in a business-related conversation I'll kill you with my own bare hands," Emma added cheerfully. "Unless it's for the good of the company."
"Be brave, little toaster. It's going to be fine."
So technically Jesse didn't lie. He didn't actually email Andrew and say "I'm the tall, handsome guy with the broad shoulders and the stubble and the ironic glasses." He just sent Andrew a long email about the new map he'd bought and how work was sapping his will to live and why New York was obviously the best place to live. And Andrew emailed back a much longer and more rambling email about the weather in London and how stressful his job was and some shopping he'd done and a concert he'd gone to and ended it with "Fine, if the cats aren't talking you had better be. Are you the one on the left?"
Justin was the one on the left in the photo.
Jesse emailed back, Good guess. It wasn't a confirmation, it just… wasn't a correction. Anyway it satisfied Andrew, and if Jesse couldn't sleep at night for a few days it was worth it when Andrew emailed back, gushing (as he tended to do) about how handsome Jesse was and how nice his suit looked… Jesse donated a check for a hundred dollars to the animal shelter on his way to work and tried not to die inside.
The unforgivable part was the other picture he sent. And the other other picture. And the other other other picture. Jesse had never realized how easy it was to find pictures of Justin on his phone or the company website. Jesse was in the background of most of them, at least, lurking like a particularly neurotic shark.
I wish you were closer, Andrew wrote. This is ridiculous, only chatting to you in email. We've definitely passed the point where we ought to have met up for a drink. You'd need one to calm your nerves until you realize how incredibly lovely I am to be around, and I'd need a drink so I didn't spend the whole time embarrassing you horribly with how I'll gush over you. You are really so incredibly good looking. You'll have to take me shopping at some point, I love your taste in ties.
Looking at the "reply" box made Jesse feel like the worst person in the world.
I wish you were closer, too Jesse lied, because he didn't know how to type, "If you were closer you'd hate me. If you were here you'd know what a shitty person I am. The only reason I've been able to talk to you at all like this is because I don't have to do it in person."
You should plan a trip to London. I could show you the sights, we could go to the West End. That's an invitation, by the way. You could stay at a hotel and so on, I suppose. Or you could stay here. Oh dear, it's hard to pull in email. I'm much smoother in a pub. I promise, if we were in a bar you'd find me irresistible.
Jesse wrote back, The problem with London is how far away it is, and how completely not inside my apartment it ends up being. My favorite places are all inside my bedroom. Uh, that sounds kind of dirty. Did I tell you how my teachers in elementary school used to try and bribe me with candy to get me to stop crying because I missed my mom so much? It didn't work.
I have better things to bribe you with than candy. ;)
Jesse slammed his laptop shut. He didn't write "You'd never hit on me in a bar. You'd hit on Justin, because he's the kind of guy who goes to bars and gets hit on while I stand awkwardly by the door, holding my coat and telling people about my cats." At least the photos were working. He wondered if Justin was right, and Andrew was jerking off to them. Then he got all flustered and embarrassed thinking about it, because he was picturing it, and that was… Well, that was another line crossed.
And sometimes that led to what he considered another line, lying alone in bed at night, thinking about Andrew's face and Andrew's pictures and what Andrew might be doing (although he had to compensate for the time zone differences, obviously). He tried to feel betrayed that Andrew was picturing Justin, not Jesse, if he was thinking about either of them at all, but really it was a secret relief, one last shred of a layer of protection between them. It was probably, Jesse thought, the last thing keeping him from falling apart entirely.
And then Jesse's carefully constructed world fell apart. He was in the middle of a meeting with Justin and a bunch of other people, talking about the client banquet they were throwing next month. Justin was pretty excited about the chance to schmooze some new businesses in with the ones he already had. Jesse had made a few notes on how to bring in more non-profits, because his ever-intensifying Andrew-related guilt had driven him to work longer, more ridiculous hours.
"What I'm saying is why not have strippers?" Justin said, as if this was totally reasonable. "I mean, we can have dudes and chicks. I don't discriminate."
"Because it's a business dinner," said Walsh, and Justin launched into all the different reasons that they should have a separate lap-dance room.
Jesse's phone beeped under the table. Everyone was listening to Justin, so he sank a little bit in his chair and flipped it on under the desk.
There was a new email from Andrew. I'm coming to New York!!!!!!!!!! It's a bit of a holiday and a bit of work and when they asked me if I was interested I said YES and I expect you could hear me all the way where you are (which is the wrong side of the Atlantic, in case you were wondering). I will brook absolutely no excuses about this, I am going to BE IN YOUR CITY and I am going to MEET YOU IN PERSON and it will be fantastic.
You are worrying, I can tell. STOP WORRYING. It's going to be brilliant. Okay, now that that's sorted tell me what the weather is like there in April so I know what to pack.
I can't wait!!! (Stop worrying!)
Steve from marketing put his hand on Jesse's shoulder. "Dude? Are you breathing?"
Jesse managed to hiccup in a little air but his hands were shaking and he dropped his phone. He slid under the table, crawling after it, and for once he was glad he was the kind of idiot who crawled under tables in business meetings because if anyone in the room had seen his face just then they would have called an ambulance.
He would have stayed down there, trying to pull himself together and figure out what he was going to tell Andrew – I moved to Brazil, sorry? I'm actually your mom pretending to be a boy you should date online? The classic faked online death? – when Walsh announced, "And special congratulations to Jesse Eisenberg, who has more than doubled the non-profit sector for us in this quarter!"
There was applause, and then a pause, and then Justin said, "Yo, J, you gonna come out from under the table?"
"Um," said Jesse. "Sure." He crawled out awkwardly, brushing the knees of his pants off. There was some more applause and Jesse tried not to let his face show exactly how shaky and terrified he was feeling.
"Awesome work as always, Eisenberg," said Steve.
"Uh," said Jesse. "Yeah, um, well, it's my job and I do it, so… You know, I try to do it well. When I can."
Justin narrowed his eyes at Jesse from across the table. Jesse shrugged back what he hoped was a clear, "What?" Justin didn't look at all mollified.
"I bet at the banquet you bring in thirty new clients," Steve added, clapping Jesse on the back.
"Uh, maybe? I mean, if I'm standing at the door, maybe, and I'm the person actually letting people in the room I could probably manage that, I—"
Steve laughed, which was nice because sometimes Jesse was actually telling jokes and not just rambling inarticulately. Okay, a lot of the time he was doing both at once, no big deal.
"Great work today, everyone," said Walsh, which meant the meeting was over. Justin vaulted over the table – show off, Jesse thought resentfully – and grabbed Jesse's arm.
"Can I help you?" asked Jesse.
"Come on," said Justin, hustling him out of the room and down the hall to Justin's office.
"What?" said Jesse, hating that Justin was so much taller than he was. "Oww, that's my arm, owww."
Justin pushed him inside and closed the door. "Spill," he ordered. "Ah!" He held up one finger to stop Jesse from explaining. "Don't even bother, dude, you went white as a fucking sheet and I thought you were gonna pass out. Are you okay? What happened?"
"Nothing," said Jesse, as the insurmountable horror rushed back over him. He'd managed to forget for a good minute or two just how screwed he was.
"Bullshit," Justin said. "Come on. Does it involve your long distance lover?"
"Ah ha!" said Justin. He was way too proud of himself. "I knew it. What happened, dude?"
"Nothing," said Jesse. "Nothing, it's nothing, I just, I can't, I need to—"
"Water," said Justin, grabbing a bottle from the mini-fridge under his desk. Someday Jesse was going to figure out how Justin got all the perks in the world without even trying. For now he let Justin unscrew the top of the bottle and hand it to him because his hands were shaking too hard to do it himself. "Drink, breathe, then tell me what happened."
"Nothing," Jesse repeated. "It's nothing, I'll be fine, I'll just kill myself and that will solve all my problems."
"Kind of drastic, dude," said Justin. He sat down on his desk, giving Jesse his I Am Being Serious Right Now face. "I'm just gonna sit here for as long as you need, man, but you're gonna tell me what just happened."
"No," said Jesse. He took a long drink of water, which brought his freak out level down from one hundred percent to ninety-five percent. Baby steps.
"Orrrrrr," said Justin, drawing the word out with a little bit of glee, "I get Emma on the speaker phone and I let her badger you in to telling us."
"Oh god. No."
Justin tilted his head. "Your choice, Eisenberg. I feel personally responsible for this shit, because I signed you up. Did Andrew cheat on you? Did he turn out to be a 50 year old man named Bob? Or a chick? Or a serial killer? If he messed you up somehow I can find him on Facebook and make him sorry."
"No, no, it's not him, it's me, it's all me. I fucked up and he – Oh my god, I want to die." Jesse closed his eyes briefly and tried to will himself invisible and far away from Justin. Preferably in his apartment with the cats, or even better, home with his mom and his sister.
"Tell me," said Justin. He waited thirty seconds and then a minute, and then he cracked like a toddler. "Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me."
"He's coming to New York!" Jesse blurted.
Justin's face lit up. "Dude! That's awesome! Oh man, is this sex anxiety? Are you a virgin? Because I have a lot of advice for you if this is a sex thing. Like, first of all—"
"No, stop it, augh, no," Jesse said, covering his ears. "It's not that. And I'm not a virgin, you jackass."
Justin made a doubtful face.
"You're gonna be mad at me," Jesse said, feeling twitchy.
"Are you pregnant?" asked Justin, deadpan. "You know that can happen the first time, right?"
"I hate you," said Jesse. "Andrew's coming to New York and I have to be somewhere else before he gets here. Do you think Walsh would transfer me to our offices in Hong Kong?"
"Probably not," said Justin. "Explain to me why you're leaving before you meet the hot guy?"
"I… lied to him a little bit," said Jesse, and then winced. "No, I lied to him a lot. Things were going so well, and I just wanted them to keep going well."
"Uh oh," said Justin. "We may need to conference Emma in on this after all."
"No! Because she's going to hate me!"
Justin sighed. "How bad is it? You're a millionaire from Greece with a private yacht and a booming social life? Or just like, you told him you have one cat but really you have thirteen?"
"I… kind of let him think that I was you."
Justin nodded like that made sense. "Suave, sexy, well-dressed, universally beloved. I can see that. But I thought he knew all about what a weirdo you are."
"No, you dork, you in the picture."
"Oh," said Justin, eyes widening. "Oh. Ohhhhh shit. Why didn't you tell him you were you instead?"
"Because," said Jesse despairingly. "He cares about stuff like clothes and going out and bars and parties. I don't have any pictures of me having fun at parties, I only have pictures of you having fun at parties. I figured it didn't matter because he was in London, but—"
Justin cut him off with a wave of his hand, leaning over to punch numbers into his desk phone. "Yo, Emma," he said.
"No!" Jesse yelped, flailing and spilling water everywhere.
"Hi, Justin," said Emma's disembodied voice. "Hi, Jesse."
"We're having a crisis over here," Justin said. "Can you join us?"
"I clock out at six, Timberlake. Deal with your own problems."
"There aren't problems," Jesse said weakly, leaning against the wall. Justin raised an eyebrow. "Massive catastrophes," Jesse allowed. "Disasters of epic proportion. But—"
"It's not work related," Justin said loudly.
"Ohhh," Emma's voice replied. "Your office?"
"Bring booze," Justin said, and clicked the phone off.
"I'm just gonna…. I’m gonna sit down on the floor," said Jesse, sinking against the wall. Justin had really nice carpet. Jesse liked running his hand across it against the grain. "What do you think Emma is going to do?"
"I think she's gonna bring some booze," said Justin, sincerely sympathetic.
"Are you drunk, honey?" Emma asked. She always sounded a little throaty, like she'd been smoking and drinking whiskey. It made Jesse feel bad for sounding a little like Kermit the Frog.
"No," he said. "Well. Let me check. No."
"He had half a beer," said Justin. "No one could possibly be drunk on half a beer. He needs a keg."
Jesse was lying on Justin's couch with his arm over his eyes. Why did Justin's office have its own couch? It was mysterious. Equally mysterious was where Emma – who wore pointy heels and kept her hair up in a bun all day – had found sweat pants and a six pack of beer. Jesse had taken off his jacket and his tie, but he felt just as uncomfortable as he had before.
"I've never actually seen a keg," said Jesse. "I always picture those things from Bugs Bunny cartoons."
"Oh dude, this one time—" Justin began.
"You have to email him and tell him the truth," said Emma. Justin had caught her up on the whole debacle. Jesse hadn't been able to look at her since.
"Just tell him the picture got reversed in email!" said Justin. Emma flicked his ear. "Ow. What? It happens."
"But I sent him more pictures," Jesse moaned. "I compounded the lie. Lies work in logarithms, they go up by squares."
"I don't know what that means," said Justin, "and I don't care. You can't move to Hong Kong and you can't fake your own death, so I think you have to tell him the truth. If he's mad then he's mad."
Jesse tried to imagine Andrew mad and couldn't. Andrew would just get sad. That was worse. "I don't want him to be mad," he mumbled.
"What did you think was going to happen?" Emma asked.
"I thought… I mean, I thought he would be in London! It seemed reasonable. He lives there."
"Let's look on the bright side," said Justin.
"Okay," said Jesse. "Tell me the bright side."
"Well," said Justin, and stopped. "Okay, he… I mean, you're definitely… The bright side is that he actually likes you. So now we just have to get him past your compulsive lying so you two can live happily ever after together."
Jesse blinked. "Wait," he said, sitting up. "Hang on, I just had a thought." He waved his hands around a little bit, trying to make the thoughts form words that made sense. "The thing is. The thing is, he lives in London! Justin, that's amazing."
"Yo, are you okay?" asked Justin. "Because that's not amazing so much as basic information."
"What's the longest he could possibly be coming to New York?" asked Jesse. He could feel the vaguest glimmer of hope bubbling up inside his lungs, making him trip over the words. "A week, maybe? And he'll be working for some of it. And then he'll be gone again, back to London, where it won't matter anymore. I only have to fake it for a day or two!"
Emma frowned a little and turned to look at Justin, who shrugged in a distinctly it's-not-my-fault way. "Honey," Emma said, "you can't pretend to be Justin for a day. And it's really not a good idea to pretend to be Justin for the rest of your lives."
"No, I – I – I – because Justin can pretend to be Justin!" Jesse said excitedly.
"Whoa," said Justin, "hold up. What now?"
"You'd be you. I mean me. I mean you'd meet Andrew. That would fix everything!"
He was clutching the arm of the couch so tightly that his knuckles had gone completely white. He just needed Justin to understand why this was so important. If he could put Andrew off for a day or two Andrew would go back to London and Jesse could… Well, keep lying to him, or figure out how to tell him the truth slowly, or anything.
"I think you might actually have gone crazy," Emma said. "Justin is nothing like you."
"But he could be," Jesse insisted.
"Nuh uh," said Justin. "I have style."
"Please," said Jesse. "It's just for one date. It's just an hour of your life."
"Hey," said Justin, affronted. "My dates are awesome, they last way longer than an hour."
Emma smacked him on shoulder. "You don't get to sleep with Andrew."
Justin crossed his arms. "Well, I could if I took him on a date," he said petulantly. Emma and Jesse both stared at him. "I could," Justin insisted. "I'm just saying!"
"More lying is a bad idea," said Emma, and for a second Jesse was sure he was going to bust into tears. He just… He just couldn't deal with this right now, he needed some kind of plan, something to take the edge off how incredibly horrible he felt about being so terrified of meeting someone he was pretty sure he was falling in love with. He should have been ecstatic to meet Andrew, and instead it was making him physically sick. He'd screwed everything up by lying but maybe if he could just get himself a little bit of space to figure out what to do next and how to fix it…
"Breathe," said Justin.
"It's a bad idea," Emma repeated, sighing, "but maybe it makes sense."
"Say what?" Justin demanded. "How does this make sense?"
She shrugged. "Frankly, I want to check this guy out in person before I let him near Jesse. Sorry, babe. You're kind of fragile and who knows what kind of people are on the internet these days?"
Jesse knew. Andrew was awesome and cute and bubbly and wonderful. But he bit his lip and nodded because he needed Emma's support.
Justin shrugged. "I guess it's no big deal. I've lied to plenty of girls," he said. Emma hit him again. "What? Ow! Not you!"
"Please," Jesse repeated.
Justin looked at him and made a face, and then looked at Emma, who was also giving him big sad eyes, and shrugged, throwing his hands up. "Fine!" he said. "But this is stupid, because no one who met me could possibly think I'm a shut-in map collector with cats."
"Thank you," said Jesse earnestly. "Seriously, thank you. You have no idea, I – I just – I can't, I –"
"You're gonna owe me forever," said Justin. He drew the word out. "Forrrrevvvvverrrr."
"I know," said Jesse. "It's okay. Thank you." A huge weight was off his chest, even if that just meant it was hovering above his head, waiting to drop a little bit later.
Emma gave Jesse a hug. "We'll figure out how to make this work, babe. I promise."
"We won't," said Jesse, feeling a little giddy and horribly honest. "I know we won't in the long run. I just… I need a little more time where everything is okay."
"I don’t have to dress like you, though, right?" Justin complained. "I don't own anything that looks like cats slept on it on the floor all night."
Emma smacked him again. Jesse kind of loved her.
When you don't reply to my emails it makes me feel like this, said Andrew, and attached a picture of himself exaggeratedly sticking out his lower lip and looking tragically sad. I'm going to be there in two weeks, and I will FIND YOU, okay, there are only so many cat rescues in New York. Don't make me go slogging about to all of them asking after you. I'LL DO IT. I HAVE TWO WHOLE NON-WORK DAYS.
Really, though. Email me. :(((((((((
It took Jesse a little while to nerve himself to reply. And when he did he decided to be as honest as he possibly could, without… Well. Without mentioning the giant, horrible lie.
I would love to spend time with you. I'd love to get to know you in real life. Every day I wish you were around so we could just sit around and talk about this kind of stuff – I'd love to hear you talk about bands in person. I bet you get really excited about all the little musical nuances I don't even hear. I bet your whole face lights up when you get to the part where the drums kick in or the tempo changes, and you need to share your headphones so everyone else can appreciate it, too. I've imagined what you look like when you're happy and when you're sad and when you're thrilled and a million other things. I would love to know if you think I'm funny when you hear me in real life, talking about my cats and my maps and my job, or if you just think I'm weird and awkward. But I'm worried you won't like me as much in person. It scares me absolutely to death.
There, that was pretty off-putting and desperate, I guess. I just really like you. It's kind of a secret, please don't tell.
He put on the kettle to make himself some more tea. Raskolnikov seemed to know that something was going on, and he jumped up on Jesse's lap and curled up, purring. Sure, he also licked his own balls a little, and then scratched Jesse when he tried to stop petting him, but it was nice. It was companionship. You couldn't betray a cat unless you didn't feed him, and Jesse was much too guilt-ridden to ever not feed something that didn't have thumbs.
The mild scratches were more than worth the purring Jesse probably didn't deserve.
Jesse spent every second of every day concentrating on work so he didn't have to be nervous about lying more to Andrew. And there was the giant dinner to prepare. Jesse was good at making lists and ensuring that things were all exactly where they belonged at the right exact moment. Justin called Jesse their "secret weapon," since it didn't make a lot of sense that he was great at charming clients, and yet inevitably after a big dinner they'd end up telling the firm that Jesse had somehow been the lynchpin in deciding to sign with them.
Justin was also incredibly distracting. He considered the banquet a giant party and he was loved giant parties, so when he wasn't making ridiculous mixes for the dj to play or planning his outfit down to the last detail of his pocket handkerchief he was quizzing Jesse about himself. He developed a habit of wandering in to Jesse's office and asking bizarre things with no preamble.
"So if I were you, would I start the conversation with my cats, or would I wait for a lull?" or "I've been trying all morning to get my collar to be weird and rumply but it won't do it," or "What's the last really big boring book you read, so I can get the SparkNotes on it?"
"I'll write all my info on your arm," said Jesse, deadpan. "You can just roll up your sleeve casually and check. I'm sure he won't notice a thing."
Justin glared. "Yeah, well, I’m gonna have to go sleep in a ditch for a couple of days to get my hair and my clothes to look convincingly like yours."
"He flies in on Wednesday," said Jesse, amazed he could even manage those words without shaking all over. "You have a couple of days to prepare your suit."
"Are you gonna talk to him on the phone?"
Jesse made a really complicated face, one part I-don't-know and two parts Do-you-think-I-should and a little bit Oh-god-everything-is-going-to-blow-up-in-my-face with just a sprinkle of I-really-want-to-hear-his-voice. "We don't really sound alike," said Jesse, biting his lip.
Justin rolled his eyes. "We also don't have the same hobbies, know the same people, or both like cats. I don't think that's what's gonna make this a bad idea."
"You think I should?" Jesse asked. "I mean. Then you'll have to have my phone Thursday."
"Dude," said Justin. "How are you not already having phone sex? What is the point of having an online boyfriend if you aren't having cyber sex?"
"I – I don't – I mean, what do you say –"
"I don't have gay phone sex," Justin said. "I don't know. 'Oooh, big guy, stick it in me,' I guess."
"Justin," said Jesse. "Get out of my office."
"Maybe something about his dick being delicious," Justin mused. "That would work on me."
"For the millionth time, you are not going to sleep with him on my behalf," said Jesse.
"I can make it really good. He'll totally never dump you."
For just a second Jesse was intensely, crazily jealous, and then he tamped it down again. He'd asked Justin for this favor, after all, and he knew Justin was mildly insane. "No," said Jesse flatly. "And try not to be so… You know, you, all the time."
Justin drew himself up, affronted. "Lots of people like me just the way I am, you know."
"Yeah, well, Andrew likes me," said Jesse. "So go do some SAT prep or try to read a fourth grade book or something."
Justin pointed at him seriously, but failed to come up with any kind of retort, and after a second he shrugged. "Phone sex, bro. That's where it's at."
"You think he'd… want to?" Jesse asked.
Justin burst out laughing. Jesse threw some post-it notes at him.
"I've landed!" said Andrew. "I'm actually in your city, on your soil, in this place where you actually live!"
His voice was exactly like Jesse had thought it would be, but it was better somehow, too. His accent was so cute, and his bubbling excitement made all the things Jesse had to say freeze in his chest somewhere.
"Hello?" said Andrew. "Have I lost the signal? The cab is noisy, can you hear me?"
"Hi," said Jesse. "Uh, hi. I mean. Hi." His hand was so sweaty he was worried he might drop his blackberry. Justin and Emma were both standing just outside the door to his office, trying to look like they weren't listening when they clearly, clearly were.
"You've got a voice!" Andrew crowed. "Oh my god, I knew you would." There was a high pitched giggle in the background. "Stop it, be quiet, I'm having a conversation," said Andrew, laughing. "Carey's trying to steal my phone."
"That kind of thing happens in New York," said Jesse, mouth mostly on autopilot. "It's convenient you know who's trying to steal it, though." He winced preemptively, because he made really dumb jokes when he was nervous, but Andrew burst out laughing again.
"Oh my god, I can't wait to meet you," he said. "I'm so grateful work sent me here! Charities don't have a lot of budget for travel, normally, and I make just about enough money to not live in my car. But I'm here! And so are you! Isn't that fantastic?"
"It's amazing," said Jesse. "Was your flight okay?"
"I'm a little giddy with jet lag," said Andrew.
Carey, Jesse assumed, shouted, "You're giddy anyway!"
"Sorry I couldn't meet you at the airport," Jesse said.
"No no, I understand. I'm here for work, first of all. Hush, Carey, I am."
"You're here for shopping in SoHo and your boyyyy," Carey sing-songed.
"Maybe. Shut up," Andrew said. Jesse could hear him blushing over the phone, it was the best thing he'd ever heard.
Jesse was smiling stupidly at the phone. "Yeah?" he said. "That's… That's um. I wish I weren't at work right now."
"Oh god," said Andrew. "I wish I were alone right now. I've finally got you on the phone. I have a million things to talk to you about. I should go, I suppose, but I'll call you tonight when I'm not sleeping because I'm on completely the wrong schedule."
"Yeah," said Jesse. It was like his face was broken, he couldn't stop smiling. Andrew's voice made him so real. "You should call. I'll be home, uh, and the cats don't mind so much if I ignore them as long as they have food. My coworkers, on the other hand, are totally spying on me right now." He tried to wave them away, but Emma was jumping up and down excitedly and Justin was giving him an enthusiastic thumbs up.
"Carey's been spying on me for weeks, she's printed out your pictures and put them up around the office," Andrew said gaily. Jesse winced. There was the problem, right there. He thought about throwing up, but he was pretty determined not to do it while he was still on the phone with Andrew. "She's amazed anyone that handsome would be online, and then I said well, I'm online, aren't I? I hope your coworkers are more supportive. You're a rotten bitch," he added, clearly to Carey.
"My coworkers are… Uh, basically the same kind of nosey and interfering," Jesse said honestly. Justin was too handsome to be online dating, wasn't he? Ugh, he'd ruined everything.
"Hey!" Justin protested.
"I bet they're lovely. I bet you're lovely. I'll talk to you later, and I'll see you tomorrow. I can't wait. Oh god, Carey's going to grab the phone and hang it up, we need to give the cab driver directions. How would I possibly know which bridge we want to take? Keep your hands to yourself, this is a very important conversation—"
In the background Carey shouted, "He'll call you later, Jesse!" and they were both laughing and having so much fun that Jesse wasn't especially insulted when the line went dead.
"Well?" asked Emma, giving up all pretense of not overtly eavesdropping.
"He's… Uh. He's great," said Jesse, putting his phone down. He felt simultaneously a million times more smitten than he had been been before hearing Andrew's voice and absolutely sick over how tomorrow was going to go.
"Sweet," said Justin. Emma gave him a look. "What?" Justin asked. "I have a date with the dude tomorrow, he better be awesome. I mean, if he's a creep I'm gonna dump him on your behalf, I'm just putting that out there."
"Don't worry," said Jesse. "Honestly, he's amazing, it'll be great. Oh my god, what am I doing?" He dropped his face into his hands.
"Baby," said Emma, "It's going to be fine. Uh. Somehow."
"Don't worry," said Justin. "I'm an awesome date."
Jesse failed to get anything else done at work that day. He went home, failed to make dinner, failed to have any advice for Justin when he emailed about the banquet on Monday night, and failed to feed the cats properly, spilling their food all over the floor instead of getting it into the bowl.
The phone ringing scared him half to death, even though he was expecting it, and his hands shook just as little as he picked it up.
"I'm so tired," Andrew moaned, without a hello or anything. "Your city is exhausting."
"That's where the 'never sleeps' part comes in, I guess," said Jesse.
"It's magical. I saw the Empire State Building today! We drove past it. Well, actually we were stuck in traffic for half an hour so I got plenty of time to look at it. I want to see the Statue of Liberty. I can't believe this is a real place! I feel like I'm in a movie." He stopped and yawned. "D'you know what time it is in England right now? Nearly two A.M."
"You should go to sleep, then," said Jesse.
"No! I just got here and I want to be on a normal schedule so tomorrow I won't look like a zombie. I mean, I am English; I'll be a bit pale. You're having beautiful weather, though, I checked."
"Is the park okay?" asked Jesse. "I thought you might want to do something New York-y."
"Oh my god, Central Park is a real place, too! I can't wait. Seriously, we could meet up right now, except then I'd pass out on you."
"That wouldn't be the worst date I ever had."
Andrew laughed. "Don't worry, I won't be your worst date. I'm a fantastic date. I'm charming and suave and slightly neurotic. But it doesn't matter because I already know you, so I don't have to worry about it at all. I'm just worried I won't want to leave again."
"I might…" Jesse looked up at the ceiling, like the popcorn paint up there might have some kind of answer for him. "Don't be surprised if I seem a little weird tomorrow, okay?"
"You seem weird all the time, it's why I adore you."
Jesse winced. "Yeah, but I might be kind of… different tomorrow. It's just because I'm nervous, okay?"
"I'm expecting that," said Andrew fondly. "I'm amazed I talked you into meeting at all. Do you know, I told my mother I'd sign up for internet dating because she'd despaired of me ever doing anything except work ever again, but now she's upset because whenever we talk I'm on the phone writing you ridiculous emails? I can't win. It's too late to get rid of me; I've already had a fight with my mother over you."
He sounded so fond, and Jesse felt so awful. "I just might not be what you're expecting."
"Don't be ridiculous. Oh, I don't know how New Yorkers do these things; am I allowed to grope you as soon as I meet you?"
Jesse thought about Andrew's hands on Justin and almost snarled. "No," he said. "I mean. That is. We should, uh, probably make sure that things are the same in person as they are in email."
"So far so good," said Andrew, obliviously cheerful. He yawned again.
"You really should go to bed," said Jesse. "You must have gotten up so early to get on the plane. What if you oversleep?"
"No chance. Carey is almost more excited than I am. She's going to help me decide what to wear. I've brought an absolutely ridiculous number of jumpers. No possibility I'll be late."
Number Three jumped up on the counter and meowed angrily. Jesse sighed and picked him up and carried him over to the food dish, which Raskolnikov had overturned, trapping most of the food underneath.
"Which one is that?" Andrew asked.
"Number Three. He's so incredibly loud when he's mad," Jesse sighed.
Andrew giggled, "Number Three?"
"Well, I have to give him back when they find a permanent home for him, and if I give him a name I'll get all attached, so… Listen, it's perfectly logical," said Jesse.
"I think you are the most perfect person I've ever heard of," said Andrew. "I'm going to crawl into bed, you don't mind, do you? I swear I'll stay awake."
"I thought about you thinking about me in bed," Jesse blurted, "but I didn't really expect it to happen while we were actually, uh, talking." He tried to pet Number Three but now that there was food around the cat wanted nothing to do with him.
There was a rustling noise that was probably a hotel comforter, and then Andrew laughed, "Are you asking me if I've wanked to you?"
"No! I… Oh my god, I’m sorry, was that over the line, I didn't mean to—"
"I have," said Andrew breezily. "There. Better?"
Jesse didn't know what to say, so he just sat silent for a minute at the kitchen table, trying to sort some kind of order out of his jumbled thoughts.
"Was that too much?" Andrew asked, sounding a little anxious. "I'm sorry, I probably shouldn't have said that."
"No," said Jesse, a little strangled. "I uh… Me, too. I just uh… Oh god, I'm really bad at this."
"You're not," said Andrew. There were more rustling noises. "Tell me what you thought about."
"Oh. Just… Oh god, just, you and um, you, your, um, your hands, and—"
"I'd put my hands all over you," said Andrew matter-of-factly.
"I'd let you," said Jesse, biting his lip.
"I'd start out rubbing your back," said Andrew. His voice got quieter. Jesse clutched the phone with one hand, trying to hear him. "I think you'd probably be a little tense when I first touched you, so I'd start out rubbing your back, just until you got used to it."
"Oh," said Jesse, thinking about Andrew standing behind him, imagining big warm hands brushing up against his t-shirt and the skin of his lower back. "Oh, that would be – That would be nice."
Andrew laughed, a little chuckle in the back of his throat. "And once I'd made you relaxed and a little bit stuttery and incoherent, just like that, well. That's when I'd reach around and undo the button on your jeans."
"I'm wearing sweatpants," Jesse objected. They were ugly ones with his sister's college logo on the front, because he'd stolen them from her.
Andrew said, "Well, you would be wearing jeans. And I'd undo the button with a really smooth flick of my wrist and you'd be so impressed you'd let me put my hand on your stomach, and under the waistband, and run my thumb along the indent the elastic leaves on your skin."
"I'd let you put your hand anywhere," said Jesse, feeling weirdly breathless.
"I want to put my hands everywhere," said Andrew. For the first time he sounded almost shy. "Is that… That's okay, isn't it?"
"I'd have to kiss you, then," said Jesse, with an odd burst of confidence. "If you were feeling nervous I'd kiss you, and you'd know how much you meant to me, and you wouldn't be nervous anymore."
"Oh," said Andrew quietly. "Jesse, that's lovely."
Raskolnikov and Number Three both jumped up on the kitchen table, hissing and yowling at each other. "Stop it, hey," Jesse said, and had to put the phone down for a second so he could pick Raskolnikov up and move him to the counter before Number Three could claw him in the face. They were both making an unholy racket.
"Sorry," Jesse said, "the cats went insane. I… I am sincerely sorry for bringing up pussy at a time like this."
Andrew laughed helplessly until it sounded like he couldn't breathe. "That's… Oh my god, you're awful," he said, and burst into giggles again.
"You should probably go to sleep," said Jesse. Andrew protested but he was yawning. "Seriously, get some sleep, I'll see you tomorrow."
"Fine," Andrew mumbled, sounding half-asleep already. "I know what I'm dreaming about tonight, though."
"Me, too," said Jesse, and hung up.
"Okay," said Emma, "are you ready?'
It was a gorgeous spring day, absolutely the perfect temperature; warm enough that they didn't need jackets and cool enough to wear a sweater. Justin was wearing an argyle sweater vest and glasses and vaguely dirty looking jeans. They were all sitting on a park bench across the street from the Natural History Museum by the entrance to the park. Jesse was so nervous he was worried he'd pass out.
"Gimme your phone," said Justin, holding out his hand. Jesse handed over his Blackberry. "Okay, I'm all set. I know what this dude looks like, and I'm gonna be my magical charming self. It'll be fine. I'm wearing my maximum effectiveness underwear."
"Hang on," said Jesse. "What?"
"I rank all my underwear from minimum to maximum effectiveness," said Justin impatiently. "Duh."
"I'm not going to show them to him or anything," Justin said. "It's just a technique I have. The point is to be you, right? And to make him like you? I can't do that without my maximum effectiveness underwear to cancel out this freaking bow tie I'm wearing."
Emma smoothed his tie with one hand. "You look adorable," she said, and then turned to Justin and rolled her eyes. "Okay, you ready? He'll be here any minute."
"Am I ready? Ha. I'm Justin Randall Timberlake, first dates are like lay-ups for me."
"Yeah, but dates where you pretend to be me are like chess games against Deep Blue," said Jesse. Justin blinked at him. "Never mind. Just, be nice to him, okay?"
"I'm a gentleman," said Justin, affronted. "Wait, or is he the gentleman? Do you think he brought me flowers?"
"He might bring Jesse flowers," said Emma. "Concentrate, Timberlake."
"Whatever," said Justin.
"Oh, shit," said Jesse. "There he is."
The entire world dropped out from underneath him, and his stomach sent him all kinds of frantic messages about how he really shouldn't have eaten breakfast. Andrew was standing on the other side of the street. He looked exactly like his pictures, only better, and cuter, and taller, and his hair was a little puffier than Jesse had realized, and his striped sweater and black skinny jeans and ugly sneakers were so… They were…
"Damn," said Justin. "He really is out of your league. Ow! Emma, damn it. No offense."
"Go!" said Emma, giving Justin a shove. "We'll be right behind you."
Justin rolled his eyes and crossed the street. He gave Andrew a big, toothy smile and Andrew's whole face lit up, and he opened his arms automatically for a hug, which Justin provided.
"Honey," said Emma quietly, "you have to breathe." She put her hand on Jesse's shoulder and rubbed his back gently, but that just made Jesse think about Andrew more, and Andrew was right there, being perfect and gorgeous.
"Thank god it's Justin, not me," said Jesse, strangled, because he would have thrown up all over Andrew if he'd had to try and talk to him.
"I guess that's one way to look at it. Okay, you ready?" She pulled her trench coat on and cinched the belt around the waist, then handed Jesse sunglasses that matched her own.
"Are we passing secrets to the Russians?" he asked.
"We're following them incognito," said Emma. "If Justin gets too handsy I'll pretend to be his ex-girlfriend and start screaming about child support. Don't worry; I've thought of everything."
Jesse said despairingly, "Except how to fix this."
"He'll be back in London in three days, and you can fix it then," said Emma. "We'll get the copywriters to help us with the perfect letter. The light is changing! Come on." She grabbed Jesse's hand and dragged him across the street.
The park was full of people enjoying one of the first nice days of the spring, and Jesse nearly got run over by a pack of bicyclists and then a screaming crowd of children running back and forth on the sidewalk.
"Justin's talking a lot," said Emma, using her elbows to get past a pack of teenagers. "Is Andrew quiet?"
"No," said Jesse, trying to keep up with her.
"He looks happy," Emma narrated. How was she walking so fast in such high red heels? "Oooh, we can totally eavesdrop up here; they're going on the path by the lake and we can walk up the hill." She plunged through the crowd again.
Jesse wasn't sure he wanted to hear what they were saying. He couldn't imagine Justin was doing a good job of being him, which meant Justin was being Justin, and that meant Andrew was smiling and laughing and hugging Justin. But he was caught in Emma's wake like a tugboat behind an iceberg – which didn't even make sense – as she ducked around the curved path and past the joggers toward the benches by the lake.
Justin and Andrew had stopped by the water. They were holding hands. Jesse's heart stopped for a second.
There were people on the bench. Somehow Emma managed to scare them off with just a gigantic smile and her slightly crazy eyes.
"It's nice, right?" Justin said. "This park is my favorite place, because I don't like to go places and interact with humans." Jesse considered throwing a rock at his head. "Actually I mostly talk to cats, so this is pretty crazy, being out here in the fresh air with a human man." He gesticulated wildly, like a robot that had broken its programming.
"I don't sound like that," Jesse hissed to Emma.
"Welllllll," she said.
"How are the cats?" Andrew asked. Jesse couldn't get over how he was really right there in front of them. "They sounded pretty worked up last night."
"Oh, you know cats," said Justin. "They're like women. Always upset over some stupid shit."
Andrew stopped and blinked at him, smile flickering, but then he shrugged. "I suppose," he said.
"I read lots of books," Justin said, loudly and stiltedly. "For example, I just read a biography of Lawrence of Arabia. Did you know he was totally into kinky sex?" He leered.
"Oh my goodness," said Andrew, starting to laugh.
Jesse hid his head on Emma's shoulder. "This is a disaster."
Emma whipped out her phone and began texting angrily. In front of them Justin's phone – actually Jesse's phone – beeped and he pulled it out. "I'm telling him to shut the hell up about sex," said Emma. "Stick to the approved topics. How hard you work, how much you love your family, and your cats."
"He's never actually met my cats, though," Jesse said.
"Yeah, but… I mean they're fuzzy and they have tails and ears, right? What else can you really say about them?"
Jesse spluttered for a second, because his cats had personality and he had plenty of hilarious stories, like the time Mrs. Pennyfarthing got stuck in a paper bag and couldn't find her way back out. "They have feelings," he said.
"Sure they do," said Emma, patting his hand.
Justin rolled his eyes and put Jesse's phone back in his pocket. "I have three cats," he announced.
"I know," said Andrew, smiling fondly. He made Jesse's heart swoop at the exact same time that he made Jesse's stomach drop.
"We are all very co-dependent and neurotic together," said Justin. "Me and the cats. I hardly ever go out and do stuff like normal people do. I'd rather stay home and read books."
"Oh, god," said Emma. "He really is the worst you ever."
"I should have known," Jesse said.
Andrew looked faintly confused, as if he'd asked for directions on the subway and been told the fastest route was to ride a unicorn wearing a top hat. "I quite like books," he offered.
"Of course you do," said Justin, not quite managing to hide an eye-roll. "Really thick boring ones, right?"
"I…" Andrew started, looking even more mildly baffled.
"He's never going to speak to me again," Jesse said.
Emma sighed and patted his shoulder. "He's Justin. He's very charming, in his own special way. I'm sure Andrew is enjoying himself just fine."
"Tell me about your work," said Andrew, still giving Justin a little bit of a confused head-tilt, and Justin smiled and launched in to a long explanation about how he brought in new clients for the fund. Andrew smiled politely and laughed in all the right places and was generally the most charming person ever.
"Okay, fine," said Emma quietly. "He passes muster. He's great, Jesse."
"Yeah," said Jesse. His chest hurt. He couldn't have what he desperately wanted, even when it was right in front of him. Justin laughed and Andrew looked a little delighted and… Jesse bit his lip until it bled. "I think so too."
The rest of the date looked really awkward to Jesse, and he see-sawed wildly between happy and upset about it. They couldn't hear everything that Justin and Andrew talked about, but Justin at least seemed happy to ramble on, while Andrew looked at best mildy confused and at worst like he was trying to figure out what was going on.
And then Justin hailed a cab for Andrew and, as Andrew was about to climb in, kissed him. He just… grabbed Andrew with both hands and kind of bent him backwards and kissed him. Andrew was adorably confused and flushed and startled and couldn't quite stammer out a goodbye before he climbed in the cab, still looking a little wild-eyed. Jesse shouted in outrage and Emma had to pull him behind a bush.
"I was awesome," said Justin confidently, adjusting his tie. "That was the best date he's ever had, I one hundred percent guarantee it."
"You kissed him!" Jesse spluttered. "Why did you – Justin, you weren't supposed to kiss him."
"I'm not actually sure how well that went," Emma said, frowning faintly.
"Super awesome," said Justin. "Sorry you're too much of a pussy to kiss your own boyfriend. I figured I ought to do it for you."
Emma sighed, pained. "You are both idiots."
Jesse hated himself so much, but he couldn't quite manage not to ask, "Was it a good kiss? I mean. If we talk about it again, I should know. For research."
"Well, I definitely enjoyed it," said Justin, insufferably smug. "There was tongue."
Emma hit him. Jesse was glad.
Jesse was half surprised, half horrified when Andrew called him that night. He'd been feeling relieved that he'd gotten away with something so ridiculous, and he wasn't sure he could talk to Andrew without blowing the whole thing.
"I just wanted to say what an incredibly wonderful time I had," said Andrew, but there was something off about his voice, and Jesse couldn't put his finger on it. Now that he had a face to go with the voice, and a voice to go with the emails, he wasn't sure how he'd ever managed to tell Andrew all the things he'd sent.
"Yeah?" Jesse asked. "That's… That's great, I'm really glad."
"You're fantastic in person, I knew you would be," Andrew went on, sounding surer of himself. "You had me thinking you'd be awkward or sarcastic, but really you were amazing and lovely and charming."
It was like knives in Jesse's chest. "Yeah," he said. "He – I get that a lot."
"And your photos don't do you justice. God, I sound infatuated, but you're really good looking." There was nothing tenuous about his tone there.
Jesse felt flattened like a bunny rabbit in front of a Mack truck. "You, too," said Jesse, thinking about how Andrew's eyes crinkled up when he smiled, and he waved his hands around excitedly when he talked. Mrs. Pennyfarthing meowed hopefully and Jesse picked her up.
"Just… really, I had such an amazing time. I'm sorry I'm flying right back out of New York after this work thing, I'd like to stay. I'd like to see you again. I'd like to see you lots. I don't know if I can settle for just emails after this."
Well that was… unfortunate. "I had a great time, too, you're amazing, I'm so glad we finally got to meet," said Jesse hurriedly. "I'm sorry, I have to go, I'll call you later." He clicked the phone off. "I'm an idiot," he told Mrs. Pennyfarthing, who meowed uninterestedly and wiggled to be put down.
"You okay?" Justin asked, popping into Jesse's office.
"As fine as I can be with a giant banquet today and no sleep," said Jesse.
"You should sleep," said Justin. "In fact, you should sleep with that hot British dude. I mean, I was halfway tempted and I'm at least one hundred times straighter than you."
"He's going back to England, and you're really, really not," said Jesse. "I… I think I'm going to tell him what happened next time we email."
"Finally!" said Justin. "Jesus. I thought I was gonna have to hack your email and tell him myself. Hey, when are you changing for the dinner?"
Jesse looked at his suit. "What?" he said. "This is fine."
"Seriously? You seriously think that?"
"Go away," said Jesse.
"You want me to try and fix it?" Justin asked, perking up a little. "I could call him and –"
"I will give you a million dollars if you will just leave me alone," said Jesse.
Justin sighed and threw his hands up. "I tried," he announced to no one, and stomped off.
Jesse planned to drown himself in work if it was at all possible, because if he had any time to think he might end up drowning himself for real. Unfortunately half an hour later Walsh stuck his head in the office and Jesse couldn't scare him off by demanding that he just leave, so he ended up being dragged upstairs to the ballroom to start greeting clients and potential clients.
"You're our man on the inside as far as non-profits go," said Walsh. "You're so good at talking them around to investing with us. High profit, low risk, and good for our portfolio. The investors love you for it. Hey, did one of your cats die?"
"What?" Jesse asked, momentarily panicked. "Why, did someone call about my cats?"
"Just… Your face," said Walsh.
"Oh, that," said Jesse. "I'm thinking about getting a new one. It didn't work so well last time, but I think this time it might really take off."
"What?" Walsh asked, opening the door to the banquet room. "Never mind. Just try to look a little less morose, Eisenberg."
The room looked really great, which was a testament to how hard Jesse and Justin and everyone else had been working. There was a four-piece string ensemble, beautifully decorated tables, and a small stage with a microphone for self-congratulatory speeches. There were a few men in suits already walking around, and far fewer women. Jesse recognized Emma by her bright red hair, talking to people on the other side of the room.
"Harvey, hey, this is our best man, Jesse Eisenberg," said Walsh, steering Jesse toward a group of suits. "Jesse, this is Harvey, he's one of the founders of Clean Water Everywhere. We're hoping to sign them tonight."
"I've heard great things about you," said Harvey in a crisp British accent, and shook Jesse's hand.
"I can answer any questions you might have," said Jesse. "I work with all our non-profits, we have a really incentivized program for—Uh --- For –"
"Jesse?" said Walsh, frowning.
Andrew was standing behind Harvey. He looked absolutely amazing in a gray suit and a skinny tie and his hair was a little less ridiculous but still kind of ridiculous and Jesse's entire chest was collapsing inside him.
"Ah, my right-hand man," said Harvey. "This is Andrew."
"Hi," said Andrew, and he was talking to Jesse, he was actually right there, speaking to him, and all Jesse couldn't remember how to blink or breathe or move. He just stood there and stared.
Walsh laughed uncomfortably. "Jesse can be kind of shy," he said.
Andrew tilted his head a little. "You look familiar," he said, and the tiniest frown flitted across his face.
Jesse was going to pass out from not breathing. "I get that a lot," he said, although it came out as more of a croak. Walsh elbowed him. "Uh, hi. Welcome to New York."
"It's the most remarkable thing, you even sound familiar," said Andrew, frowning more.
"Oh, do I?" Jesse asked, voice a little high-pitched with panic.
"And there's my other superstar," said Walsh, looking over Andrew's shoulder. "Justin, come over here!"
Jesse had had panic attacks before; he knew what they felt like. His heart was racing and his hands were sweaty and the room was starting to spin. Walsh was waving Justin over, and Justin turned and smiled, and Andrew turned to look at him, and his face sort of froze on a friendly smile, and Jesse was going to just keel over and pass out at any second.
"Andrew, Justin. Justin, this is Andrew."
Justin realized who Andrew was just a tenth of a second after Andrew stuck his hand out to shake. Justin's face went from "hi there" to "oh shit" to totally professional so quickly that Jesse would have been impressed, if his brain had been working at all.
"Justin," said Andrew carefully. "Justin." His face was totally, terrifyingly blank.
"Justin and Jesse are our dynamic duo," said Walsh, clapping Jesse on the shoulder.
Andrew turned back to him. "Sorry, you're Jesse?" he asked, and his tone was light and friendly and utterly proper, but his eyes were… Well. Piercing didn't begin to cover it.
"Yeah," said Justin, sounding truly apologetic. "He's Jesse. Listen, we can explain."
"Oh can you?" Andrew asked, still polite but with an incredible edge underneath it. He wasn't smiling at all anymore.
Walsh had somehow totally missed the undercurrent of the conversation. Jesse couldn't figure out how anyone could miss it. "They're our best guys. They'll be working with you, they're the very best at handling clients."
"Yes," said Andrew coldly, "I feel very handled. I suppose this was some kind of recruitment technique?"
"No!" Jesse blurted. "It—"
"Tell them the good news," said Harvey, nudging Andrew.
It took Andrew just a second to school his face into a smile. "We're going to be signing with you," he said.
"Hey, that's great," said Walsh.
"We really…" Andrew started, and then turned to look at Jesse again. "We really appreciate how open and honest you've been during this whole process," he said, sounding choked.
Jesse opened his mouth to apologize and explain but nothing was coming out. Andrew looked so hurt. It was worse than he'd ever imagined.
"It's been really refreshing," Andrew went on, because obviously Harvey was expecting him to. "Feeling like we'd finally found an investment firm we could trust."
"So many people try to bullshit you," said Harvey cheerfully, "but having talked to Justin and Jesse over the last couple of weeks I'm sure you're all being totally straight with us. No bullshit here at all, it's refreshing. Just good guys I feel like I can trust, right Andrew?"
"Yes," said Andrew. "Trust. I… God, I'm sorry, excuse me," he said, and bolted for the door.
"Wait!" Jesse shouted, running after him. Walsh started to say something and Justin caught his arm, shaking his head. "Wait, please wait," Jesse said, just behind Andrew as he pushed his way out into the hallway.
"Is this some kind of game to you?" Andrew demanded, turning around. "Some kind of hilarious American joke I'm not understanding?"
"No," said Jesse. "It's a… Misunderstanding."
"Which one of you has been emailing me?" Andrew asked, crossing his arms. He looked like a kicked puppy. Jesse hated himself so much. "Which one of you have I been confessing my darkest secrets to? I imagine you've been reading them out loud to each other and laughing."
"It wasn't like that, it was me, it was all me." I really like you he wanted to say, but he couldn't manage it, and Andrew was already talking again.
"That's funny," said Andrew. One of the partners walked past them, giving them both a strange look. "Because I'm sure I went on a date with him. God, Carey's in there, she's seen your – his – photographs, she's going to know what a complete fool I am."
"I'm the only one who was writing you," Jesse said. "I'm sorry! Justin was … I dragged him into it."
"Well thank you so much for making me look like a complete and utter idiot!" Andrew shouted.
"I didn't know it was you!" Jesse said.
"I think that's my line," Andrew snapped.
"I mean, here, at work. I didn't know you worked for the company we were talking to," said Jesse despairingly. It still didn't excuse anything.
He couldn't tell if Andrew even heard him. "I have never felt so stupid in my life," said Andrew, furiously quiet. "You and your coworkers stood around laughing at me, they're probably having a good laugh in there right now. And I was… I was being honest with you. God, I defended you! I thought you were too good to be true, I talked to everyone about how I'd met the one real, wonderful person on the internet. My friends kept telling me that I ought to have checked up on you, and I said you were the most honest person I'd ever met. I will never be able to face Carey again. I can't believe I was so stupid!" There were tears in his eyes. Jesse wasn't crying, but it was because it felt like his entire chest was broken. Someone had taken everything inside him and ground it down to powder and set it on fire and he couldn’t breathe.
"You weren't," choked Jesse.
"I was! I absolutely bloody was," Andrew shouted. The caterers were looking at them. "I knew something was wrong, I knew you didn't sound the same, but I liked you so much I didn't use my brain at all. I let you make a complete idiot out of me." He shook his head, chest heaving. "Well at least you've made one thing a lot easier."
"Never speaking to me again," Jesse hazarded, barely audible.
"That too," snarled Andrew. "No, I mean Harvey has been pushing me for months to take over as head of our international operations, but I thought it might be a bit difficult to… To carry on a relationship while I was traveling around Asia and Africa. No worries now, though! I'll be on the plane to Namibia first thing when I get back."
"In… In Africa?"
"As far away from you as I can get," Andrew said coldly, and walked out.
Justin had obviously told Walsh something, because Jesse stuck his head inside just long enough to catch Justin's eye. "Go home," Justin mouthed, waving at him, and for once he looked genuinely sympathetic.
Emma dashed over and met him at the door. "Oh my god, Jesse, are you okay?" she asked. "Let me call you a cab."
"No, I… I'll be fine," said Jesse, feeling oddly empty inside. "We knew that was going to blow up, didn't we? I just hope he doesn't get in trouble with his boss for walking out."
"Justin smoothed it all over," said Emma. She looked so worried. Jesse tried to feel grateful for it, or angry about it, but there was just nothing. "I'll come home with you, make sure you get there okay."
"No," said Jesse quietly. "You need to be here for the banquet. Tell Walsh I'm sorry. I'll be here first thing tomorrow morning."
"If anyone asks your great aunt just died," said Emma, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
Jesse collected his coat and his laptop and took the subway home, because he wanted to sit and stare into space for a while. He tried to feel relieved that it was all over. He tried to feel sad that he'd made Andrew so sad. He tried to feel angry or disappointed or hopeful or anything, and instead there was just a big empty space where Andrew had been.
It was dark and cold by the time he got home. He walked up the steps to his apartment and hoped the cats meowing for food hadn't disturbed his neighbors. They circled around his feet and tried to trip him and he fed them on auto pilot.
A cold, sick feeling settled in the bottom of Jesse's stomach. He'd been hopeful, and he'd been stupid. He was scared that horrible, sick feeling was never going to go away again.
Jesse had cried every single day of kindergarten because he was so homesick, and he felt the same way now, even though he was in his own kitchen, with his own cats. Raskolnikov purred and head butted him before jumping on top of Number Three and chasing him away. Mrs. Pennyfarthing curled up in his lap.
After a few quiet minutes Jesse picked the phone up. There was only one thing he could think of to do about all this guilt, sinking in his stomach.
"Mom?" Jesse said, hoping she couldn't hear quite how ragged his voice was. "I… Can I talk to you? I screwed something up pretty badly and I just… I need to tell you and have you yell at me."
"Sweetheart," she said sadly, and Jesse finally started to cry.
Justin hovered anxiously in the doorway all the next morning, and Jesse ignored him. He wasn't interested in talking. He just wanted to work. Justin, though, wasn't great at being ignored. He kept walking by, giving Jesse anxious looks until Jesse started to feel anxious about it, too.
"What?" Jesse finally demanded, closing his laptop.
Justin, caught lurking just outside Jesse's office, froze. "Uh," he said. "Just. Everyone's kind of wondering if you're okay."
"Who's everyone?" Jesse asked. If the entire firm had somehow learned about Jesse's romantic misadventures he was going to jump out the window.
"Me. Emma. Walsh was wondering, too." Justin looked guilty. "I didn't tell him about the uh… You know. The 'situation.'"
"The air quotes aren't really necessary," said Jesse, rolling his eyes.
Justin crept a little bit into Jesse's office. "Have you heard from him?"
Jesse took a couple of deep breaths, because he was determined not to lose his calm. "Nope," he said. "Last I heard he was taking off for Africa."
"That's pretty drastic," Justin said. "Did you try explaining what happened?"
"He really didn't want to hear from me," said Jesse. "And I can't blame him."
Justin looked unhappy and fidgeted a little. "Dude, I'm really sorry about this," he said. "I signed you up, I feel responsible."
"This was my fault," said Jesse flatly. "It's okay. Do you mind if I go back to work?"
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm not going to get any better any time soon," said Jesse.
Justin made a face. "That's… That sucks, dude."
"I'm aware." Jesse opened his laptop again, hoping he'd given Justin enough of a conversation to make him stop hovering in the doorway. Justin fidgeted a little bit and then shrugged, walking away.
Emma was more relentless. "You can't just sit around and mope."
"Yes," Jesse said, "I can."
"No, we're going out," Emma ordered, pulling him away from his desk. "We're going to go get drunk and you're going to be sad and heartbroken and then we'll figure out how to find you someone way better than Andrew. That was like training wheels, okay. Now you know what not to do."
Jesse sighed loudly. "I'm fine," he said. "It's been a week, I haven't slit my wrists."
"Right," Emma agreed, "but you also haven't smiled."
"What is there to smile about?" Jesse asked.
Emma made a sad face. "This is what I'm saying. Come on."
There was a bar down the street from the office, somewhere dark and cheap that the other lawyers and analysts and partners didn't like to come. That was why Jesse let Emma bully him into going there. There was no chance of running into anyone. He let her buy him a shot and a beer but he nursed it because he tended to get miserably drunk ridiculously quickly.
"You're weirdly calm," said Emma. "I don't understand."
"I'm upset," said Jesse with a shrug. "There's just… Nothing I can do about it. So I'm working and trying not to think about him. I mean, it. I mean, anything."
They had a cozy booth in the back of the bar where Jesse could hardly even see Emma's face in the watery florescent light, but he could tell she was looking sympathetic, and it made him uncomfortable. "There are other fish in the sea," she said.
"I don't even like fish," Jesse said.
Emma groaned. "Boys, Jesse. There are other boys in the world."
Jesse ran his thumb through the condensation on the outside of his beer glass. "I don't want other boys," he said quietly.
"We could call him," Emma offered.
Jesse shook his head. "He's in Africa. His email account is gone and his profile is deleted and I have a feeling if I tried his phone number I'd get a dial tone. He's been pretty thorough in making sure I won't be able to get in contact with him."
"Then you have to figure out how to move on," said Emma. "I know a great gay bar on Christopher St., we can find you a drunk one-night stand to clear your head."
Jesse looked disbelievingly at her. "Do I seem like a one night stand person to you?"
"Well, we have to do something!" Emma protested.
Jesse just shook his head. "I think I've done pretty much everything I could possibly do. At this point it's just… You know. Suck it up, give it some time, move on with my life. I'm spending the weekend at home with my mom. She's going to make tea and I'm going to sit on the couch until I feel better."
"You're going to bring your work home, aren't you?" Emma asked shrewdly. "You've been working like a crazy person all week."
"It's the only thing that makes me feel better," Jesse said. "It's… Okay, my therapist says that I'm trying to improve the portfolio for Clean Water Everywhere and make them profitable to assuage a little bit of my overwhelming guilt. Or maybe to impress Andrew. She also says I'm not allowed to adopt a hundred cats."
"Are you trying to impress Andrew?" Emma asked.
"He's in Africa. I'd… I'd like him to know I'm trying to do something," said Jesse. "But I think it's pretty clear that he's done with me. And I don't think bringing cash to his organization is much of an apology."
Emma gave him a hug. Jesse tried to be the person who was saying all this calm, philosophical stuff about moving on with his life and really mean it.
"I miss him," Jesse said quietly.
"In vino veritas," Emma sighed.
"In cervisia veritas," Jesse corrected her, and downed the rest of his beer.
"You're like superman," said Walsh, looking over the print-outs. "Seriously, Jesse, you're amazing."
"This month alone you've brought in seven percent gains for these businesses. That's unheard of. Congratulations."
Jesse shrugged again. It had been a long, boring summer and he'd spent most of every day at work, avoiding the heat and avoiding being home where he might accidentally think about Andrew. It wasn't easy when Justin and Emma kept trying to bring him up, but Jesse had perfected a blank stare that eventually made them go away again, and as it got closer to August they got less persistent.
"There's good news and then there's better news," said Walsh.
"Can I skip all the news and just go back to work?" Jesse asked, not very hopefully.
"The good news is that Clean Water Everywhere is incredibly impressed with our firm and your work. The better news is that they want you to fly out to London and speak to them about investment strategies for the future." Walsh grinned. "Cheer up, Eisenberg! You're getting a free trip to London!"
"I'm cheerful," said Jesse. "I uh… Do I have to go?"
"Yes," said Walsh firmly. "It's going to be great. You need a vacation anyway. You've been miserable since your great aunt died. I don't think you've taken a day off in all the years you've been working here. I can't make you take days, I guess, but I can send you to London."
"Alone?" Jesse asked hopefully.
Walsh shook his head. "I've been pushing for Justin to go with you. He's worked with the accounts and let's be honest, he'll make sure you have fun while you're there. You excited yet?"
"Ecstatic," said Jesse. "I'll have to get someone to watch my cats."
"Yes," said Walsh, "you will. It's gonna be great."
It was going to be far away and miserable and weird and Justin was probably the most annoying person in the world to share a hotel room with, Jesse imagined. Plus he wasn't feeling sure about public speaking in general; it wasn't his favorite thing ever. It wasn't in his top one hundred favorite things.
"Not to pry," said Walsh, "but I was talking to Harvey over at CWE and he said that… Remember that guy, Andrew, the one you met this spring and you two had some kind of… argument?" He raised his eyebrows to let Jesse know that Walsh knew something more was going on but he wasn't going to say anything. Jesse stared straight ahead and tried not to have any expression at all. "I asked and I guess he's in Malawi. In case you were worried."
"I wasn't," said Jesse, but he relaxed fractionally knowing that there was no chance of running into Andrew.
"Emma seemed to think it was important," Walsh said. He made a face. "I don't want to intrude, but it did look… Awkward."
Jesse tried not to look too mortified by the entire conversation. "I kind of knew him," he said. "And it was… Not great. So it was a little uncomfortable seeing him there."
"Ahhh," said Walsh, nodding. "An ex. I get it. Well, he won't be in London, if that's what you were worrying about."
"I can find other things to worry about," Jesse reassured him. "Like security in the airport, and flight delays, and the flight itself, and giving a speech to a bunch of strangers."
"That's why I'm sending Justin with you," said Walsh. "If nothing else he can give you a drink before your flight, and before the speech. I think it might help."
"I really shouldn't mix alcohol with my anti-anxiety pills," Jesse said.
"If I had to pick I'd go with 'worry less and drink more,' but that's just me," said Walsh. "Go figure out what you're going to say in this speech, Eisenberg."
Jesse considered for a second. "Boy, what a beautiful city you have here. Aren't you glad the US was around to save it from the Nazis?"
"If they boo you off stage I'm firing you," said Walsh, and Jesse laughed a little.
"Hey," said Justin. "You asleep?"
Jesse was reading a book and listening to his iPod – he'd kept the Decemberists on his playlist even though it made him think about Andrew and ache a little bit inside – and hoping his anxiety medicine would kick in before the plane took off. "No," said Jesse. "I think it's harder to read after I fall asleep."
"I get it," said Justin. "Funny. Hey, did you pack snacks? I'm hungry."
"Don't the flight attendants bring snacks?"
"Not in like, five years, man. You gotta get out more. Hey, you nervous?"
Sometimes Jesse wished he could smack Justin just by looking at him. "No, I love hurtling over the ocean in a metal tube."
"I mean about your speech. You have a lot of stuff to say?" Justin rummaged through his bag and found a bag of chips, so why he'd asked Jesse for snacks was anyone's guess. Probably he wanted to eat his way through Jesse's snacks before he ate his own.
"Something about profits, something about working together, something about numbers," said Jesse. "The slides are all prepared."
"You should also mention that you're in love with the dude who's the international relations guy for the company," said Justin, mouth full.
"What?" Jesse said. "No! I'm not going to say that. I mean, I'm not."
"Busted," Justin sing-songed. "I knew you were just pretending to be over him."
"I'll start my speech off with that," Jesse said, "and you can follow me by talking about how you stuck your tongue down his throat. Good plan or best plan?"
"Jealous," said Justin automatically and then winced. "I'm just kidding, J, I really am sorry about that."
"It wasn't your fault," said Jesse tiredly. "Can I read my book now, please?"
"Don't you want to watch the free movie?" asked Justin, poking at the TV on the back of the seat ahead of him.
"I don't really watch TV or movies."
Justin turned to him seriously. "Hang on, you were semi-online dating a hipster and you didn't even have television or movies to bond over hating?"
Jesse shrugged one shoulder. "We talked about other stuff."
Justin just shook his head. "Oh man. He must have really had it bad for you. Let's hop off this plane and go jump on one to Malawi."
"I'm putting my headphones back on," said Jesse.
"When you finally do decide you want to go to Malawi I'll be an awesome wing man," said Justin. "Just let me know."
"You have to get shots to go to Africa," Jesse said. It sounded true at least. "And visas, probably."
"I can handle the border guards," said Justin confidently. "You handle the romance. Wait, maybe I better handle the romance, too."
"Go to sleep, Justin," Jesse said, and turned his music up.
On a scale of one to ten Jesse was really only at about a six as far as nerves went, but Justin was also driving him absolutely up the wall and they were sharing a hotel room, which wasn't helping any. Justin took Jesse downstairs to show him the stage and all the round tables in the room that would be full of investors and potential investors and people who worked for CWE. Jesse abruptly skyrocketed up to at least a nine.
"You'll be fine," said Justin. "You always think you're way more awkward than you really are."
"That's completely true, except for how entirely backwards you are," said Jesse. "I'm a million times more awkward than anyone could possibly imagine."
Justin made a face and shrugged. "I'd offer to pretend to be you and give the speech for you," he said. "But I think we've all learned that's a really bad idea."
"Don't worry, dude," said Justin, doing a little dance with just his shoulders. "If you get all nervous and fumble the speech I'll jump up on stage and fix everything. That's my job. I got your back, bro."
"You're giving me a stress headache," Jesse said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
Alex, the head of Clean Water Everywhere, swept into the room. "Boys!" he said. "My favorite New Yorkers. You're not worried about the speeches tonight, are you? Everyone's terribly excited to hear you speak. We're thinking about opening up a New York office, you know, and maybe one in Los Angeles."
"I'm not nervous," said Justin, "but Jesse basically lives there. I wouldn't worry."
Alex smiled at them. He was nice, and Jesse was glad; Andrew deserved a nice boss, wherever he was. "Come and have a drink with me; we'll see if we can't work those nerves of yours out," Alex said.
"Not sure that's a great idea—" Jesse began.
"It's an awesome idea," said Justin, lighting up. "This hotel has a bar?"
"This hotel has an amazing bar," said Alex. Jesse hoped that maybe the two of them would bond over their mutual love of drinking and forget about him, but Alex clapped him on the shoulder and said, "You look like a vodka and tonic man to me."
"Oh," said Jesse. "Do I? I always thought I looked more Jewish."
Alex barked a great big laugh. "Wonderful," he said. "I know the barman. He's a great friend of mine, and he makes the drinks nice and strong. Come along." He started down the hall, confident that Jesse and Justin would follow him, which they did, mostly because Justin grabbed Jesse by the arm.
"Really?" Jesse sighed quietly. "Can't I be the designated driver?"
"Our room is in this hotel, so no. You can't be the designated pussy." Jesse made a big show of sighing and rolling his eyes, but not where Alex could see him. He suspected a drink really would make him feel better about giving a speech to a bunch of strangers, particularly a bunch of strangers who might hate him, depending on what Andrew had said before he took off for Africa.
The bar was so swank that Jesse almost didn't walk in, but Justin gave him a shove, and then Alex handed him a drink. It was hard to get comfortable on the shiny leather and chrome tables, or maybe it was jet lag and the lingering anxiety pills he'd taken twelve hours ago, but Jesse felt even more awkward than usual.
"Drink up, man," said Justin, clinking glasses with Alex. "Cheers! That's what you say over here, right?" Alex, just like a million clients before him, looked oddly charmed by Justin's total ridiculousness. Jesse was never going to understand it.
It was a bad idea, Jesse thought again, but Justin and Alex were watching him expectantly, and as long as he stopped at one it couldn't be the worst disaster ever, could it? "Cheers, then," Jesse sighed, and took a sip.
Jesse held on to Justin with one hand, because the room was swaying around in circles. "I know England's an island," he said. "Is that why it's rocking up and down?"
Justin gave him a funny look. "You okay?" he asked. They were sitting right up near the front of the banquet room, and the lights were shining straight into Jesse's eyes. The crowd around them applauded politely for whomever was speaking. Jesse meant to listen, he really did, but he couldn't get his brain to stay focused on one topic long enough to figure out what anyone was saying.
"I'm great," said Jesse. "Wait. What?"
Justin pushed a glass of water over to him. "You're going up on stage to speak in like, a hot minute," said Justin quietly, "so you better drink a shitload of water in the next thirty seconds. You sound drunk as shit."
"I'm not drunk," Jesse insisted, but he couldn't stop blinking, and Justin was going in and out of focus. "I stopped after two drinks."
"You stopped after five drinks," said Justin. "And if Emma asks, I said that was a bad idea."
"You bought them for me," said Jesse. He thought he was maybe going to throw up, but at least it was from alcohol poisoning and not nerves.
"Right, but if Emma asks I definitely didn't," Justin said. "Oh shit, you're being introduced."
Jesse was wonderfully unworried about it, because he couldn't quite figure out what Alex was saying up on stage. Something about money and investments, which was kind of what Jesse did, although not exactly. He thought about maybe going up and correcting him. "I'm good," said Jesse. "I'm fine. It'll be fine."
"Do you have your presentation?" Justin asked, looking worried, but then Jesse heard his name and decided it was probably time to go up on stage.
He got up the steps with a minimum of swaying and without falling over even once. Alex shook his hand and it sounded like a lot of people were clapping, but Jesse couldn't see them because the lights were in his eyes.
"We went out for a drink before this, I'm feeling a little… Whee," said Jesse. Everyone laughed. Jesse felt like he was watching a movie of himself talking to a room full of strangers, which was so liberating that he decided to just wing the speech. "I just wanted to say thanks for inviting me out here to speak to you. I'm sure my cats miss me, but my friend Emma's going to feed them, so it'll be okay." He squinted into the lights, trying to remember what he'd been planning to say. It was all fuzzy and vague. "I'm glad I've been able to bring in big returns for you guys. You seem really nice. You all seem really…" He trailed off. "You know who was really nice? Andrew. I mean, of course you know him, you worked with him. He's probably the nicest person I ever met. Nice, and funny, and sweet. I think I’m gonna throw up, but don't worry; it's not because I feel so bad about him anymore, now it's because I drank too much." The room had gotten really quiet, and Jesse could hear Justin hissing something at him, but it seemed really far away and unimportant.
Jesse flapped his hands around a little bit. "I miss him, but I probably shouldn't, because I lied to him and he hates me, but if he weren't in Africa I'd tell him I'm really, really sorry. I don't usually lie to people. I don't usually… I mean, but hey, I made you guys seven percent profits this quarter. Can you tell Andrew? I don't think he'd answer the phone if I called, but he should know. I… I wanted him to… I'm just really sorry. I was so in love with him and I never said." The stage was spinning in lazy circles around him
Justin was definitely not part of this speech, but for some reason he was on stage anyway, grabbing Jesse by the arm. "Okay, that's way more than enough," Justin said. He leaned in to the mic and joked, "That's what we get for enjoying English hospitality, am I right?" There was cautious laughter, and Jesse frowned; this was definitely supposed to have been his speech, not Justin's.
"You're pretending to be me again," Jesse objected.
"I thought New Yorkers could hold their liquor, but you guys have one heck of a guy in Alex," Justin went on, still smiling. Everyone laughed again, louder. "Listen, thanks so much for flying us out here tonight. We have some slides about the investments and the profit margin and some really great ideas for what we think you guys should do as next steps, and I'm going to come back and explain it to you in a minute. But first my friend here is feeling his jet lag – and let's not lie, those free drinks – and I'm gonna walk him upstairs." There was some clapping and some laughter and then Justin was pushing Jesse off stage.
"I didn't get to finish," Jesse complained.
"Dude, this is a mercy killing," said Justin. "I'm never letting anyone buy you a drink again."
"But you bought them," Jesse objected. "Anyway, I think it's all the medicine I took for the flight." The room was spinning a little bit again. "It made me feel all… Round and round."
"Lord," said Justin. "Okay, you're gonna drink some water and go lie down and we'll figure out what to tell Walsh in the morning." He pushed Jesse into the elevator and propped him up against the wall. The elevator was all glass and metal and it felt cool against Jesse's forehead when he started sinking into the wall.
"I think I'm drunk," Jesse said.
"No shit, Sherlock," Justin agreed. The doors binged and opened again. "If you throw up in our room I'm gonna make you pay for a separate room for me tonight."
"I'm starting to feel a little better." Justin opened the hotel room door and pushed him in and sat him down on the bed. The room had stopped spinning and settled into place, and Jesse blinked and found Justin's face stayed in focus even when he walked around the room.
"Well, you couldn't have gotten any drunker," Justin said. "Water. Drink."
Jesse drank obediently and his head started feeling a little clearer. "Hang on," he said slowly. "What did I just give a speech about?"
Justin refilled the glass and handed it back to him. "Mostly about your crush on Andrew. I think I can salvage it but I have to get back downstairs. You're gonna lie down while I go and save both our asses. Thank god you already made slides. You okay? Okay, I'll be back. Seriously, don't throw up on my stuff."
"I feel a lot better," Jesse said, but he was still happy to let Justin wrestle his tie and jacket off and push him back down on the hotel bed. He was having trouble remembering exactly what he'd said on stage but he was sure it wasn't good. Hopefully everyone would just think he was a drunk, jet-lagged idiot and no one would wonder too hard about why he'd talked about … Oh god, what had he said about Andrew? Jesse groaned and rolled over, hiding his face against the pillows. He sincerely hoped he'd never remember the entire thing clearly.
He dozed off, or maybe the alcohol and pills finally caught up with him again, because a knock on the hotel room door startled him awake. Jesse's head was throbbing but at least he felt like he was present in the room instead of watching himself give the most embarrassing speech of all time. In fact, he didn't feel drunk at all anymore, just overwhelmingly embarrassed and tired. His mouth tasted like something had died in it or he might have thought the whole thing was a dream.
There was more loud knocking on the door. Jesse rolled off of the bed, pleased that he had his sense of balance back. His t-shirt was pretty rumpled and he'd drooled on the blankets a little bit, but he was mostly human. This was probably Alex, coming upstairs to tell him he was fired. He hoped he hadn't gotten Justin in trouble too, at least.
Jesse fumbled with the weird hotel door knob and pulled it open.
Andrew was standing in the hall. He looked a little sunburned and as exhausted as Jesse felt, and there was something horribly fragile about the way he was standing, arms crossed over his chest, one sneaker rubbing anxiously at the back of his other ankle.
Jesse's mouth fell open. "Am I still drunk?" he asked, and then clapped a hand over his mouth because that wasn't the first thing he wanted to say to Andrew. The first thing he wanted to say to him was… Well. Everything.
"That was the worst speech I've ever heard," said Andrew tightly, looking mostly at the floor. He pressed his lips together and looked up at Jesse for a second, then faltered and went back to his sneakers. "Did you mean it?"
"I…" Jesse started. He wondered if he should mention he barely remembered most of what he'd said. He knew he'd apologized, though. "Yes. I'm a pretty terrible liar."
"That hasn't been my experience, actually," Andrew said quietly.
"Oh," said Jesse. "Ouch. True. Except you'd never have believed me if you'd seen me even for a second. Justin never believed me, no matter how many times I told him you were just some person on the internet, and it didn't matter…" He trailed off. Andrew probably didn't want to hear that.
"Was I not?" Andrew asked, looking up and biting his lip.
Jesse tried really hard to swallow, and couldn't, so he tried really hard to say, "No," but the word got stuck in his throat. He shook his head instead.
"I really, really liked you," Andrew said quietly.
"I only lied because of how much I liked you," Jesse said. Andrew laughed disbelievingly. "No, I mean… Your pictures were so cool, and you were so together, and I look so ridiculous in every photograph, and I just… I didn't want you to be disappointed and stop talking to me, I… I panicked, and I'm so sorry, I should have told you, I shouldn't have let Justin go out with you, I shouldn't have lied on the phone." There were so many sorrys to say that Jesse couldn't stop them from tripping all over each other. "I am a screw up and a jerk. I'm so sorry. I think I can find more ways to say it. I apologize. I regret it. I—"
"Stop," said Andrew, laughing a little. "That's plenty, you don't have to flagellate yourself. I mean, more than you already did downstairs. I appreciated that."
"I'll do it again," Jesse offered desperately, because it seemed like there was a chance, however slight, that just maybe Andrew was going to forgive him. "I'll tell everybody, I'll go on television or something, I—"
"No," said Andrew quietly. "Just… Just tell me again."
He looked hopeful. Jesse hadn't seen Andrew looking hopeful before, it was… It was terrifying, because it was something that could go away again at any second, and he knew it. "I'm sorry," Jesse said, trying to put months of apologies into one little sentence.
"Okay," said Andrew. And then, before Jesse could react at all, Andrew leaned forward and kissed him.
Andrew was taller than he was, it was weird for just a second, but Andrew fisted one hand in Jesse's rumpled t-shirt and pulled him closer, and his mouth was warm and a little bit desperate against Jesse's. Jesse grabbed Andrew's shoulders with both hands because he didn't know what else to do, but there was a chance that Andrew might go away again, and Jesse was pretty sure he couldn't go on living if that happened. Andrew kissed him harder, and all the crumpled, broken things inside Jesse's chest started to unfurl themselves again, giddy and feathered and whole.
"Wait," said Jesse, pushing Andrew back just a fraction. Andrew looked puzzled. "I… My breath is gross right now, I was drinking with your boss. I can brush my teeth and we can start this again, maybe?"
Andrew looked at him for just a second, puzzled and delighted and something else Jesse wasn't sure about, and then he started to laugh. He laughed with his entire body, shoulders shaking, face lighting up until he hid it against Jesse's shoulder, giggling helplessly.
"I knew you'd be better than Justin was," Andrew managed. He hadn't let go of Jesse's t-shirt, and Jesse wasn't ever going to ask him to. "You're fantastic. How are you real?"
"Why aren't you in Malawi?" Jesse asked, hopelessly confused. "I mean, don't go away, please."
Andrew laughed again. "I just got back. Someone called Emma at your company phoned Alex and told him I was urgently needed for this dinner."
Jesse was going to call her and yell at her and then buy her all the flowers in New York. "I didn't mean to make you flee the continent," Jesse said. "You can have Europe, I'll stay in New York."
"No," said Andrew fiercely, tightening his fingers in Jesse's shirt. "I think that's a terrible idea. Malawi was… It's lovely, the people are so nice and I did so much and learned tons of things. But I was pretty miserably lonely, too."
"I'm sorry--" Jesse started again.
Andrew kissed him until he stopped trying to apologize. "Okay," said Andrew, mouth still against his. "It's okay."
Jesse shook his head and Andrew kissed him again, fiercely, biting at Jesse's lip until he gave up and kissed back. Jesse thought that if any time Andrew wanted him to stop doing something he kissed him… Well. That would be alright.
"Please don't go away again," Jesse said, a little plaintively.
"I think I'll tell Alex I want to come back to London. He won't be too surprised. I mean, you just told everyone I work with that you're in love with me," Andrew said. He grinned, looking pleased and a little shy. "You should tell me."
"Hopelessly," said Jesse, and Andrew smiled. "Desperately. Stupidly. Oh god, so very, very stupidly in love with you."
Andrew looked at him fondly, like Jesse was birthday cake or a box full of puppies or something he was sure he didn't deserve to be compared to. "Good," said Andrew. "Because I felt so stupid for being in love with you when I found out you'd lied."
"I'm sorry," Jesse said. He had a feeling he was going to be saying that forever.
Andrew shook his head. "Just promise you won't make a fool out of me again." He slipped one of his hands around Jesse's waist, on the small of his back, rubbing his thumb over the spot where a too-tight belt had left red marks on Jesse's skin.
"I definitely promise never to lie to you about another dating profile," Jesse agreed.
Andrew laughed and dug his fingers into the small of Jesse's back. "That won't be a problem," he said. "You have to take that profile down anyway."
"Do I?" Jesse asked, feeling stupid and overwhelmed and so happy he almost couldn't breathe.
"You're taken," said Andrew, and kissed him again.
Jesse had been living in his apartment for so long that when he woke up he could tell whether the closet doors were open or shut without even looking. He could just feel where the walls were, whether he'd left things out on the floor, how many cats were perched on the bed. So before he opened his eyes he'd catalogued a few things.
First, the sun was just starting to slope in through the window; not quite dawn in early fall was too early to be awake. Second, there was only one cat on the bed, probably Raskolnikov. Otherwise he was alone.
Jesse had just a second of panic, and then he remembered the note that Andrew had put up on the fridge sometime during his last weekend in New York – a weekend that had turned into a week despite his good intentions to get back to work.
First rule: if you wake up alone I HAVEN'T LEFT. You'll know if I've left because you'll have taken a cab with me to the airport. Do you remember a cab? No. So I'm still here. Look around! Maybe I'm hiding. ;)
Jesse flailed a little with one hand to make sure he really was alone and then groaned, rubbing his eyes open. Andrew had pushed the blankets back and the sheets there were cool under Jesse's fingers.
He rolled out of bed and put his glasses on, rubbing the bridge of his nose until the gyroscope in his head stopped spinning and told him which way was up. Raskolnikov meowed indignantly at being jostled. Jesse petted him perfunctorily and looked around for Mrs. Pennyfarthing and Number Three, but they were probably wherever Andrew was, the traitors.
When he felt like he could walk around without stumbling into any walls or tripping over his own feet Jesse shuffled into his slippers and down the hall to the living room. Andrew was sitting at the kitchen table with his laptop open, wearing a plaid shirt and nothing else except black boxer-briefs. Mrs. Pennyfarthing was snuggled in his lap and Number Three was sitting on the kitchen table, rubbing up against his computer. The kitchen was on the sunny side of the apartment, which meant the sun was giving Andrew's slightly ridiculous bed-head a halo effect.
Andrew glanced over at him and rolled his eyes, then looked back at the laptop. "That's sorted, then. I'll talk to you later." He reached forward and clicked something and then closed the computer.
"Business meeting?" Jesse asked.
"Coffee's in the pot," said Andrew. "Yes, of course it was a business meeting. It's work hours in England."
Andrew had left a mug out for him, which was sweet. Jesse poured himself some coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. "Do you usually wear pants at meetings? I'm just asking, I don't know how they do things over there."
"Not if I can help it," said Andrew, and waggled his eyebrows a little. Jesse managed not to crack up, which meant Andrew began laughing instead. "It's so early here! I was going to come back to bed. But I made coffee in case you woke up and panicked. You didn't, did you?"
"Of course not," Jesse lied.
"Eventually I'll convince you," Andrew said, smiling fondly.
Jesse would have been perfectly okay with their week-long vacation together turning into … well, some kind of magical forever-vacation, if such a thing had been possible. But he tried not to say that out loud in case Andrew wasn't as hopelessly infatuated as he was. Jesse shrugged. "You've taken over half my closets and my drawers and your stuff is everywhere. If there's more of you we'll have to get a bigger place."
He was just joking, but Andrew stopped laughing and started fidgeting in the chair instead. Jesse leaned over and kissed him, morning-coffee breath be damned, one hand on Andrew's shoulders. He savored the familiarity of Andrew's mouth, the way he could feel Andrew's breath speed up just a little bit, the lazy press of their tongues together.
"What?" Jesse asked, pulling back.
"Nothing," said Andrew, fidgeting enough that Mrs. Pennyfarthing meowed and jumped to the table. " I suppose that it's just that I was meant to be here for the week, and that was a week and a half ago, and I don't have a ticket home yet. But I do have to go. I've absolutely positively got to be in Bangladesh by next Wednesday. And I just don't want to overstay my welcome and take over all your space and—"
Jesse dug his thumb into the knot Andrew always had just above his shoulder blade, and Andrew stopped talking with a little sigh, eyes fluttering shut. "Rule number two," said Jesse.
"Right," Andrew agreed. "It's meant to go both ways."
A day or two after the first rule had gone up on the fridge Andrew had annotated it with a second: You aren't the only crazy one in this relationship. In his darker moments Jesse clung to that post-it note desperately.
"The cats like you better than me," said Jesse. "So you know. I take that as a good sign." Andrew huffed a little laugh. "Seriously, you're always welcome here. I'd rather have you here than anywhere else. You should quit your job and just stay with me. You dress like an itinerant hobo anyway." Whoops. Had that slipped out?
Andrew gave Jesse a little shove, rolling his eyes. "Says the man who only owns two pairs of jeans, one of which he stole from Justin. Why won't you let me take you shopping?"
"Why would you bother?" Andrew glared until Jesse sighed and apologized. "Right, sorry. It's because I don't see the point so I spend the whole time being a big whiny baby and making you sorry you ever met me. Apparently."
"Yes," said Andrew definitely. "That's what it is, I knew it was something."
"Well, you do make a point of telling me that every time you drag me out to stores. You bring that pain on yourself."
"Shut up," said Andrew cheerfully. "I just end up buying myself something, it all works out. Shopping in New York is amazing. That's the other reason I never go home." He'd moved over so he was somehow half on his chair, half on top of Jesse, who didn't mind too much when their legs got tangled together.
"You've been here three times," said Jesse. "I guess it's probably my turn to go to London, is what you're trying to tell me."
"Well, it is," said Andrew, lighting up, "although it hadn't occurred to me to demand visitation rights. You stayed in London after the conference –"
"Justin stole my ticket home as revenge for us locking him out of the hotel room."
"The only nice thing he's ever done." Andrew waved that off. "And then I came out for a weekend –"
"And now I've come out for a week—"
"Sixteen days and counting."
"Stop interjecting facts, you're interrupting," said Andrew imperiously. Jesse held up his hands in surrender and went back to drinking his coffee while Andrew rambled. It was one of Jesse's new hobbies. "So yes, it is your turn. But my point was, Emma told me you never take the days you've got for holiday, so you've got lots and lots of time, and I think you ought to come with me to Bangladesh."
Jesse choked and started coughing.
"And then come with me to England, because I promised mum she'd get to meet you. She's a bit up and down on you, I'm afraid. First I told her you were wonderful, and then there was that part we don't talk about where I didn't like you quite as much and she's convinced you're the reason I went to Africa and got malaria, even though I didn't get malaria. Only I got a bit sick after I got back and mum thinks it was a very mild case. So you should meet her and be your wonderful, charming self, and then she'll understand why I'm so infatuated."
"What do you think I'm going to do in Bangladesh?" Jesse asked. Andrew was giving him the sad eyes, which meant he was probably going to crack and end up on the wrong side of the world getting malaria himself, or sunstroke, or being bitten by a poisonous snake. They had those in Bangladesh, didn't they?
"I think you'll help me dig wells whilst looking terribly manly and sweaty, and you'll sweet-talk all the local authorities into letting us start some new water filtration projects," said Andrew.
"How do you say this stuff with a straight face?" Jesse asked.
Andrew laughed. "I'm serious! We'll only be there a week, then we'd go to London and you can meet my mum and my friends. Carey and Rob need to get to know you. And I can show you around the city! We didn't see much of it last time. Mostly just the inside of my flat."
"Mostly just the inside of your bedroom."
"Yes," said Andrew, blushing just a little. "I'm aware. I was there."
"Speaking of which, the inside of my bedroom is right over there," said Jesse, hoping to change the subject.
"Come with me," Andrew pleaded. "Otherwise I'll be gone a month and I won't see you at all. Please? You can say it's for work, you're supervising your investments. Please come with me? Please?"
"Augh," said Jesse. He had to look away, staring out the window so he wouldn't say Yes, of course, anything you want, any time you want. "Fine! Just stop it, with the eyes. I have enough trouble saying no to you."
"Do you?" asked Andrew, delighted.
Jesse groaned. "You can't seriously be asking me that."
"So you'll come?" Andrew leaned forward eagerly, biting his lip.
"God. Yes. Obviously." Andrew pumped his fist happily and Jesse just shook his head, because there was nothing on earth he had quite as much trouble with as Andrew when he was really enthusiastic.
Andrew leaned forward and grabbed Jesse's face with both hands, kissing him enthusiastically and all but crawling into his lap. "Fantastic," he said. "Wonderful. You won't be sorry. Bangladesh is beautiful."
Jesse knew he wouldn't be sorry, because whatever stupid thing he ended up wearing or doing or saying Andrew would be there. He also knew it was going to be a disaster, and he'd probably end up sick or injured or accidentally stranded on a desert island somehow. He'd deal with it for Andrew.
"We'll have to get Emma to watch the cats," Jesse said.
"I love Emma. Emma is wonderful, she's a fantastic cat-sitter. I'll go with you to work and ask her and she'll say yes because she thinks you should come to Bangladesh with me," Andrew said cheerfully. Jesse gave him a little look. "It's possible I already ran this by your office to see if they'd let you go," Andrew added, looking the tiniest bit guilty and also immensely proud of himself.
"Please tell me you weren't talking to Justin," said Jesse.
Andrew frowned a little. "No," he said shortly. He had a lingering grudge against Justin which he couldn't entirely hide, and Jesse thought it was adorable. No one had ever preferred him to Justin before. Not like this.
"Bangladesh," said Jesse again, because he couldn't believe that he'd just agreed to that. He was feeling a little giddy and a lot apprehensive, but mostly like the world's biggest dope, and not sorry about it.
"One more thing," said Andrew, hurriedly, like he was afraid Jesse would take back his agreement. "I was just skyping in to work."
"I know," said Jesse. Number Three butted his head against his shoulder, asking for more food. It was probably time to admit that he wasn't giving that cat back to the shelter and give it a real name.
Andrew flailed around a little and nearly spilled Jesse's coffee all over both of them. "No, stop, I'm all flustered now, I didn't think you'd say yes. I mean, I did think you would, but I had assumed I'd need to bribe you. Anyway. Alex wants to set up a New York office and he asked if I wanted to run it. It wouldn't be full time, but I'd be in New York about three quarters of the time, and I haven't said yes because a weekend isn't the same as nine months, but I thought I'd mention it, just in case—"
"Oh my god," said Jesse. He tried to stand up and almost dumped Andrew on the floor. He put his coffee down, because his half-naked boyfriend probably didn't want to be covered in scalding hot coffee. "Seriously?"
"Is it alright?" Andrew asked. "I know how you get about your space and your stuff and your apartment and change. The last thing I want is to trigger another psychotic break where I get back to find Justin in my bed or something."
Jesse dug his finger into Andrew's side until Andrew yelped and laughed and wiggled away, dragging Jesse to his feet. "It's great," said Jesse. "You already have half my closets. The cats like you. Please move to New York. Oh god, I will go to Bangladesh with you ten times if you move to New York with me."
"I can get a flat," said Andrew, pulling Jesse down the hall toward the bedroom. "Sorry, an apartment."
"Don't get either one, stay here," Jesse argued, letting himself be pulled. "You know I like to be inside my apartment whenever possible. So really, you should be here as much as possible."
"Here, or…" Andrew pushed open the door to the bedroom. "Here? Out, Raskolnikov. Get out."
"Well, here and in here," Jesse allowed. Andrew handed him the disgruntled cat and Jesse put him down in the hallway and shut the door. "I'm fine with either one. I'm fine with anything as long as you're in New York."
"Part time!" Andrew reminded him. "I suppose we could try it and I could always get my own flat if it's too much for you."
"You're never too much for me," said Jesse. "Let's make that rule three."
Andrew beamed. "That's my favorite rule so far." He was kneeling on the bed, all ridiculously skinny hairy legs and his absurd plaid shirt and Jesse was so horribly in love that he could feel it bursting out of his chest. "You're never too much for me, either."
"That shirt, though," said Jesse. "That's kind of too much for me."
"I was planning to take it off," said Andrew, grinning wickedly and pulling Jesse onto the bed. And then he did.