Jesse arrives at the party – some shindig his castmate’s roommate’s girlfriend is throwing – feeling slightly out of place. Most of the partygoers are Tisch students and seeing as the most experience he’s with Tisch is stopping by the Starbucks at Astor Place and most of them aren’t even drama majors they don’t have a ton in common. Still, he’s pretty charming so he flirts with a few of the girls gathered around the bar as they ask with great enthusiasm about the play he’s in.
He rhapsodizing at length about the production, making it sound far more elite than it is in reality, when he spots her across the room, recognizing her unapologetic laugh. He stares for a few seconds too long, watching as her hair catches the light, feeling a tinge of jealousy at the tall blonde she’s chatting with.
Excusing himself abruptly from the gaggle of girls, and a few guys as well, Jesse makes his way through the party. Rachel jumps slightly when he touches her elbow; he can tell she’s a little drunk. She lights up unexpectedly as she turns away from whomever she was conversing with and spies his face.
“Jesse!” she exclaims, giving him an overenthusiastic hug. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I know someone’s roommate or something,” he says, like he’s not entirely sure how he wound up at this party either.
“I mean, what are you doing in New York?” she tries again. “The last time I saw you was, what? Nationals? My senior year? I assumed you were still whipping Vocal Adrenaline into shape."
Jesse feels a little disheartened. It’s not that he expected her to stalk him online and follow his every life change, but he at least knew she was at NYADA. He also knows she ended things with Finn for good a year ago and has even been in and out of two relationships since, according to her status on Facebook.
“Nope,” he says, shaking his head. “Ohio is not big enough for me. You should know,” he winks. “I’m actually a working actor now.”
“Are you really?” Rachel asks, in awe. “I’ve only done the class musicals at NYADA. The lead role, of course, but still. You’re in a legitimate production?”
“Yeah,” he replies, smiling hard, pleased that she’s impressed with him. “I mean, it’s still in workshop but my part is pretty big. Not the lead but… our producers are talking about a move to Broadway next spring.”
“Jesse, that’s so exciting,” Rachel says sincerely. “I mean, I don’t know how I feel about you getting onto Broadway before me, but I’m very happy for you.”
They spend the rest of the night talking in a quiet corner. She tells him about her classes and he tells her about the other parts he’s had since he came to the city, including an account of the two weeks he spent as The Pirate King in some guy’s basement in Greenpoint, which makes Rachel laugh that laugh that makes his legs unsteady for just a moment.
“We still managed fifty people a night. Almost sixty at our Sunday matinees,” he says, cracking a smile despite himself.
“But you’re not even a baritone,” she says, her nose scrunched up in laugh, like that’s the punch line of the entire saga.
Jesse can’t help but laugh with her. “Yeah, I had to go on vocal rest for another two weeks after that. Never will I look for roles on Craigslist again.”
By now Rachel’s sobered up mostly and they’re together on the couch, their sides pressed together. She leans over, her mouth horrifyingly close to his ear. “Do you want to go out sometime?” she asks, before she pulls back quickly, almost like she’s afraid of an answer.
He waits until he catches her eye again before replying, “It’s a date.”
She beams at him before she ducks her head and kisses him on the cheek. “Coffee tomorrow?” she asks.
“No, you deserve a real date,” he says with a smirk. “Epic romance.”
Jesse spends the entire next day planning, making lots of phone calls and checking at least fifty different websites on his phone. It’s very stressful planning “epic romance”, he finds, but he know Rachel deserves it and he’s really just lucky to be getting this second, no, third chance.
Eventually he has to settle on taking Rachel to one of his ex-castmates’ new show. Everything on Broadway is sold out and his attempt at Rushing did not go to plan. Who knew you had to be a student?
To make up for the modesty of the entertainment portion of the evening, Jesse also phones in a reservation at Candle 79, remembering Rachel mention the vegan chocolate and peanut butter mousse that time he came to New York to watch her junior year Nationals competition.
He tries to not think about how that trip turned out.
“I thought you were standing me up,” she says. “I would’ve texted but I was afraid it might be true. That or you had gotten into a terrible accident.”
He apologizes profusely. “I’m so sorry, the director wanted to change a line and the writer got incredibly offended and we wound up watching them bicker for forty-five minutes before they decided to call it quits for the day,’ he explains, hands running through his hair. “And my phone’s dead.”
“That’s okay,” Rachel says, biting her lip and staring at her feet. “I was just afraid you’d found something better to do tonight.”
Taking her hand, Jesse pulls her closer as she looks up into to his eyes. “There is nothing I’d rather be doing,” he says honestly. “Not on any night.”
She grins at him and he helps her climb into the cab, before sliding in after her.
“260 West 36th Street,” Jesse informs the driver. “Hurry please, I think we’re already running late.”
He looks over at Rachel; she fiddling with her hands so he grabs one before giving her a reassuring smile. She returns it.
“So do you know what this show is about?” she asks.
“No, not really,” Jesses admits. “Derek is always working on a ton of scripts and scores, but I have no idea which one he’s finally showing to the public. I, for one, am hoping it’s his one-man revival of Company.
Rachel laughs deeply. “How exactly does one do a one-man performance of Company?” she asks.
“I have no idea,” he says with a smile. “That’s what I’m hoping we’ll find out.”
It takes almost forty minutes to get from Rachel’s apartment on East 74th Street to the theatre. They're so wrapped up in conversations that Jesse doesn't even notice the meter when it hit $40. Reluctantly he pays the high fare while Rachel takes down the plate numbers to file a complaint with the TLC.
When the taxi drives off, Rachel checks her phone. “It’s already 8:15,” she says, referring to the eight o’clock curtain time on the ticket Jesse had handed her. “It doesn’t even look like anyone’s here.”
“Everyone is probably already inside,” he says, even though he finds the lack of lights inside the building discomforting.
He leads her into the small theatre, holding the door open for her to pass through ahead of him. She smiles and grabs for his hand as the walk through the lobby and into the aisle of the nearly empty theatre.
It’s actually less of a theatre and more of a small room with a sea of rusty metal chairs spread out across the room. Jesse can count the amount of other audience members on two hands.
Even though it’s several minutes past eight, it doesn’t even look like the stage is set and the house lights are still on.
Jesse grabs two programs from the table near the door and hands one to Rachel. He doesn’t even look at it until he hears her gasp. Looking down he finds the words Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: The Musical over an extremely graphic drawing of two slabs of meat hanging from hooks.
“Oh, Rachel,” he says, unsure of to follow up. “I’m sorry, I—I didn’t know. We can leave if you want.”
She shakes her head. “No, that would be rude and I have too much respect for the theatre process to do that. Can you just… take this?” she says, handing him the offensive pamphlet.
“Yeah, okay,” says Jesse, taking it from here. “You want to sit in the front or the back?” he asks, unsure, gesturing towards the row of chairs.
“The front is fine,” she says, reluctantly following him towards the seats.
After another half hour of waiting the performance finally begins. It’s terrible.
The lead playing Rudkus sounds like he has a cold and his co-star may be a worse dancer than Finn Hudson. Jesse isn’t even sure why there’s dancing in a scene where she dies but that’s nothing compared to the tasteless song that accompanies it. Plus the show is extremely graphic, including a scene in the meat factory that douses the audience with what appears to be blood. Jesse’s fairly sure it’s ketchup, but he’s not going to taste it to make sure.
Rachel looks like she’s going to cry and Jesse feels his heart sink. He puts his arm around her, pulling her close, in an attempt to comfort her, but he can’t tell if he’s worked. Her body is still tense against him and she’s still looking straight ahead at the performance.
Between the headache-inducing vocals and Rachel’s palpable discomfort, Jesse feels like the show lasts forever. He lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding when the curtain finally falls.
The couple stands and applauds politely as the cast gives its final bows. Jesse doesn’t want to have to stay and talk to Derek about the show, so he ushers Rachel quickly out of the row and into the lobby.
“Are you okay?” he asks when they reach the quiet space. “If I had known that what it was going to be about, I would never have taken you here,” he says, unable to hide the emotion in his voice.
“It’s fine,” Rachel says, clearly still upset. “I’m just tired. Hungry too.”
Jesse checks the time on his phone, cursing when he sees that it’s well past ten. “I think we’ve missed our reservation. Fuck.”
Rachel sighs and Jesse feels like he could start crying, if he was the kind of person who did that.
“I can just take you home,” he says, finally admitting defeat.
“I guess,” Rachel shrugs.
Together they step out of the theatre doors and into a heavy rainfall. Jesse curses again. They spend at least ten minutes standing in the rain as he attempts to hail a cab but every one that passes is either full of off-duty.
He looks at Rachel, the red maybe-ketchup substance still in her hair, dripping onto her shoulder with the rain. She looks incredibly miserable and Jesse can’t help but be reminded of the last time she had food in her hair. At least this time it’s not his fault – not directly. He still feels guilty.
Eventually Rachel suggests they just take the subway and Jesse obliges only to make her happy. He never takes the subway and he doesn’t really want Rachel to have to sit in a car full of babbling morons, smelling like urine, but they can’t walk back in the rain.
The train ride goes exactly as Jesse expects. They wait too long and get onto a car so fully of people Jesse can’t even see Rachel. Someone very close to him smells so strongly of cologne he has to hold back a gag and he jumps when a hand grazes his ass, unsure if it was intentional or not.
Finally he sees Rachel get off at 77th Street and he has to push past a wall of teenagers to get off the train before the doors close on him.
They still have to walk five blocks to her building, so Jesse pulls off his jacket, draping it over his arm and shoulder to cover her head. They walk those five blocks in silence and Jesse is positive this has been his very last chance with Rachel. And he blew it.
As they arrive at her stoop, she pulls away from him and he shrugs back into his jacket. They’re both already soaked; what’s the point?
“I… um,” Jesse stutters. “Thanks for letting me take you out.”
“Thanks for taking me,” she says. He can’t tell if she’s being facetious or not because he’s not looking at her face.
“Well, I’ll see you around, I guess,” Jesse says, deflated.
As he turns to walk back towards the subway, he feels a hand on his back. He stops and turns around when she stands up on her toes and kisses him flat on the mouth.
“Oh,” he says, dazed.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “I hope that’s okay,” he hands coming to rest on his shoulders, not meeting his eyeline.
He doesn’t give a verbal response, instead dipping his head and finding her mouth with his, kissing greedily. She leans into him, pressing their bodies together. His hand comes up to cup her face, his thumb flicking away droplets of rain, as his tongue brushes against hers.
When they pull apart finally, their breathing is rougher and Rachel giggles.
“I’m glad you took me out,” she says, and Jesse can tell she’s being honest. “I mean, I’m sad we didn’t get to go to dinner, but I’m glad you’re in New York. With me,” she adds.
“I’m glad I’m in New York with you too,” he replies, his hands resting on her small of her back. “I’m just sorry our first date – well, second first date – was so dreadful. You deserve better.”
She smiles at him, her hands slicking through his wet hair. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time for ‘better.’”
Standing close, rain pouring around them, their mouths meet again and Jesse isn’t sure how it’s possible for anything to be better than this.