They're in a closet together.
Jess and Nick Miller, eyeing each other from across a walk-in closet that smells like mothballs. If there's one thing clear, it's that Leah Cho's dad owns a lot of tweed suits. From outside the door Jess can hear their friends chanting -- "KISS KISS KISS KISS" -- like crazy people, and Schmidt's voice is the loudest of them all. She's a little dizzy from drinking, and Nick looks nervous, sweaty, and Jess isn't even sure why she let Cece talk her into playing 7 Minutes in Heaven. It wasn't like she really wanted to. She wanted to look at the books in Leah Cho's living room. She had her eye on one about the food of India on the coffee table.
"We don't have to," Nick says, softly and kind of to the floor. "If you don't want to."
And, well, Jess isn't going to back out of this stupid game and have Nick tell everyone that they didn't make out because she didn't want to. Instead she reaches up a hand to fix her glasses, realizing a second too late that she's got her contacts in. "I want to," she says, hoping her voice doesn't shake.
Nick swallows. She watches his throat bob. "Seriously. It's fine, Jess. We're friends. We don't have to do anything just because Schmidt wants us to."
She folds her arms across her chest. "I'm okay with it. I mean, if you're not okay with it -- "
"What? I'm totally fine with it!" Nick snaps, sounding like normal Nick again. "I'll kiss you! I'll kiss anything! What, you think I'm too scared to kiss you?"
"I don't know, you keep saying how we don't have to kiss -- "
Nick launches himself at her, cutting her sentence off with his mouth. It's messier than Jess was expecting. Not that she's a kissing expert, not like Cece. She's only had one boyfriend, Paul Genzlinger, who sat next to her in jazz band freshman year. Yeah, there were like...maybe two other boys who have kissed her, but it's not like this. Nick's really going for it, aggressive, his lips firm against hers, and his arms coming to circle her waist, pulling her tight against his chest. She kisses him back, opening her mouth a bit, and hopes he doesn't mind that she makes a little squeaking noise when he licks against her bottom teeth.
This must be what those ladies on the covers of romance novels feel like, Jess thinks hazily. This is one of those bodice-ripper kisses.
She lets him press her back against a shelf of carefully folded sweaters, her hand snaking around his neck. He's got stubble that feels rough against her chin and cheeks, but she doesn't want to stop. Cece's been telling her for like a year that Nick's got a crush on her, and Jess kept saying no, but okay, yeah, maybe Cece was right all along and Jess kind of wishes she could text Cece to let her know that Nick's got his mouth on her mouth and it's awesome.
They pull apart with a light smacking sound and she's panting, staring at him, and he's staring back. The door is thrown open. Schmidt grins at the two of them, holding an open can of beer in his hand.
"7 minutes are up, you dirty kids!" he crows.
Nick doesn't say anything. He just gives Jess one more look and shoves past Schmidt. He's basically stomping out of the room.
"What was that about?" Schmidt asks.
Jess shrugs. She doesn't know.
Cece won't join the creative writing club with her. It's all Jess wants to do when she hears about it, the summer before they're in high school, and she begs and begs and begs and Cece won't do it.
"I don't want to have to write more, Jess," she says, wrinkling her nose and going back to her cup of fro-yo.
It's not that Jess isn't brave. It's just that it's high school, and that's a big deal, especially coming from the 8th grade. She doesn't want to get off on the wrong foot. Creative writing might not be cool enough. But also, it's creative writing, and she has so many stories in her head (plus she's read like a mountain of fanfiction, so she knows some stuff about writing).
In the end, she signs up for it anyway. They meet after school in Mrs. Zarkowski's English classroom, tucked next to a bank of senior lockers. Cece walks her to the door and leaves. She's got dance lessons after school or something way cooler.
There's three other people there already. All boys. They're sprawled across five desks, with their backpacks and notebooks and they're chatting easily before she walks in. Then they clam up.
"Hi," she says. "I'm Jess."
"Hi," the three of them say in a chorus. They don't offer their names.
"This is the creative writing club, right?" she asks.
One of the boys -- he's in an immaculate collared button-down and fitted jeans -- leans across his desk. "Look, Jess, I don't mean to be rude, but...this club is kind of our thing."
"Shut up, Schmidt," another boy says. His plaid shirt is faded, and the sleeves are rolled up to his elbows. "You can't say that."
"You're being rude," the third one chimes in.
"Yeah, it's really sexist," Jess says, super annoyed now. She huffily sits down at a desk in the front of the room. "This is a public club, and I want to write, so I'm staying here."
She takes out her notebook and a pencil and starts, ignoring them. She hopes Mrs. Zarkowski will come in soon.
"Sorry about Schmidt," the plaid shirt boy says, coming over to sit next to her. "I'm Nick. Do you want some gum?"
He's offering her a little packet of Orbit. It's some weird flavor, like mint mojito. "Sure," she says, watching him struggle with the package.
"This is dumb. The packaging is too fancy, and this flavor is horrible. My brother picked it. They should stick with the classics," he grouses as he hands her the piece. Which, okay, that's weird. But also funny.
"It is a little dumb," she says, popping it into her mouth. She decides he's okay.
Nick makes her mad almost every day. It's basically guaranteed that he's going to piss her off before first period even starts, but they make up sometime around lunch. Sometimes she makes him mad. He once gets so upset over something she's singing that they have an argument that draws the attention of the vice-principal and three teachers from four hallways away.
"This is your fault," he hisses at her when they're assigned Saturday detention.
"Do not blame me, Miller!" she says back. She's never had detention in her whole life until now.
That's when Cece starts in on her Nick's-got-a-crush theory.
"He totally likes you," she says at lunch, making space at the popular table for Jess.
Jess is too mad to eat with Nick, Schmidt, and Winston, even though she usually does because she hates all of Cece's friends. She pulls out her sandwich from her lunchbox and tears the crusts off, methodically. "That's so gross. He does not."
"He does. He so does. You'll see." Cece reaches over and takes a Cheese-It from Jess's baggie.
She doesn't even drop it when Jess starts going out with Paul, who is twenty times better than Nick, and Jess has way more in common with him. Even if they only date for 3 months.
"It's okay. You have me," Cece says, letting Jess cry on her by the sinks of the second floor girls bathroom after the break up. "And Nick," she adds. "You've got me and Nick."
"Oh my god, shut up," Jess says, but she laughs a little.
The thing is, and Jess knows this, is that Nick's got this on-again, off-again girlfriend from camp named Caroline. They met when they were like ten and they've been "together" every summer and Nick won't shut up about "Caroline loves this" or "Caroline thinks this song is awesome" or "Caroline hates this movie". The problem is, Schmidt and Winston later confide in Jess, is that they always get together at the beginning of camp, and Caroline promises that they'll stay together during the school year, and she always breaks up with Nick around Halloween.
"The dark days," Winston says, shaking his head over his gross cafeteria pizza.
"He gets so desperate," Schmidt sighs. "He never learns, poor schmuck."
Jess doesn't talk to Nick the whole summer between freshman and sophomore year. He's gone to camp -- and Caroline. She reads all of the books on the recommended reading list, biking back and forth to the library under the hot sun, and watches bad movies with Schmidt and Winston in Schmidt's basement. She goes over to hang out in Cece's pool three days a week, the two of them spending hours talking about nothing as they drift on the floating rafts Cece's parents bought. It sucks because Cece won't hang out with everyone else, not after Schmidt broke up with her ("Totally humiliating, Jess! Now everyone knows that we were hooking up!").
Midway through July there's a postcard in the mail. On the front is a pretty non-descript picture of some mountains. On the back it says:
I wanted to write you when I first got here, but then I forgot because it's camp, and now it's July and I'm sending you this. OH WELL, I didn't say I'd be good at writing you. I guess that's all I can write because I've run out of space.
Julius Pepperwood (ALIAS Nick Miller)
It makes Jess smile, standing by the mailbox, all hot and sweaty in her plastic Target flip-flops. Her heart is doing this funny thing, skipping almost, especially when she reads how he signed it. Julius Pepperwood, the ridiculous protagonist of the zombie stories Nick's been writing all year. She puts the postcard up on the corkboard above her desk, Nick's message facing out.
The next day she sends him a postcard of Venice Beach:
Dear Julius Pepperwood (ALIAS Nick Miller),
I hope you're having a good time at camp. Yesterday Schmidt made us watch some movie that was awful, and it was subtitled, so it made it doubly awful. Also, I got a karaoke machine from my uncle Henry (he's really my second cousin), and Cece and I sung Taylor Swift songs for four hours. I bet you're really glad you're not here.
Jessica Night (ALIAS Jessica Day)
She writes it all in really small letters so she can fit it onto the postcard, but it still runs over a little and gets hard to read in the corners. She has to draw a box around the address part so the post office won't get confused.
Of course she doesn't hear back from him. That was pretty much expected.
There's absolutely no way that Leah Cho would have invited Jess to her party if it weren't for Cece. And, weirdly, Schmidt, because Leah seems to like Schmidt and Cece seems to hate that. Jess never understands it when anyone likes Schmidt, but it means everyone will be at the party, even Nick, who's been a major bummer ever since Caroline dumped him (again).
"Leave me alone, I don't want to go to your stupid Halloween party!" he says, huddled beneath his duvet on his bed when Jess, Schmidt, and Winston arrive at his house.
"Sometimes we have to do things that we don't want to do, Nicholas. Sometimes we make sacrifices," Schmidt says, and he and Winston bodily haul Nick out of the room and into the shower. Jess sits in Nick's desk chair and picks up the book she was in the middle of the last time she was over.
Twenty minutes later, Nick is ready to go, he looks...good. He's got a clean shirt on and Old Spice and Schmidt's done something to his hair. Jess feels her pulse stuttering. She knows she's staring, but she can't stop herself from looking anyway.
"Why are you looking at me?" Nick asks her, folding his arms.
"N-no," Jess stammers.
"Because you're a handsome devil, Nick," Schmidt says, slinging an arm around him. "You smell of confidence and glory."
"Are we going to have to hear about this all night?" Winston asks. "Or can we go?"
The game of 7 Minutes in Heaven is already in full swing when the four of them get to the party. There's beer in the kitchen, thanks to Leah's sister, and someone's passing around a bottle of tequila. Jess doesn't normally drink, but some stupid girl from her math class has draped herself over Nick the moment they all walked in, and now she really really wants a beer. Winston gets her one, and they drink together, leaning against a wall in the dining room.
"You should go talk to some girls," Jess says, taking fast gulps.
"I'm just -- too nervous," Winston says glumly.
She pats him lightly on the shoulder, and goes upstairs to try to find Cece.
Which is how she gets roped into playing 7 Minutes in Heaven.
Which is how she ends up hardcore making out with Nick in a walk-in closet.
So. That explains that.
"You liiiiike him," Cece says gleefully when Jess tells her about Nick's sudden transformation to hotness between rounds of the game.
"No, I, no," Jess protests weakly. "Okay. Maybe."
She's pretty sure Cece engineers the her-and-Nick-in-the-closet thing after that. Because it's definitely no coincidence. Plus, Cece winks at her before they shut the closet door.
They spend an hour searching the neighborhood for Nick after he leaves the party. Cece's sort of new boyfriend Shivrang from this fancy prep school drives them around while they shout Nick's name out of the car windows. Some dogs bark, and an old guy yells at them, but no Nick. Eventually Shivrang drives them all home. There's a text message from Nick on Jess's phone that she must not have heard, which is strange because she's been clutching it all night. It says he's fine, so she calls Schmidt to let him know, and she changes into pajamas and gets into bed.
She stares up at the glow-in-the-dark constellations on her ceiling and thinks about the kiss, how her lips buzzed afterwards, how she can feel a bruise forming in the small of her back, where he pushed her against the shelf. Jess wishes she could see what her face looked like afterwards, because Nick's face looked crazy, almost wild, and his cheeks were bright red.
Two hours later she wakes up to something striking her window. She lies in bed, still mostly asleep, and it happens again. Jess struggles up and peers out of the window. Nick's standing downstairs, to the side of the house, flinging pebbles up at her. It's like a movie, or a TV show. She pushes the window up.
"Let me in!" Nick whisper-shouts up.
"What?" she says.
"Let me in! I need to talk to you," he says.
She motions to the back of the house, and slips down into the kitchen to meet him there. It's all quiet except for the humming of the fridge, which makes her unlocking and opening the door even louder. She has to take a step back when Nick walks in, because suddenly it's like he's taking up more space than usual. He's still got that Old Spice smell, mixed in with sweat and alcohol, and that inexplicably smells really good to Jess. Really, really good.
"Do you want some water?" she asks.
"Okay," he says.
She fills a glass with water from the tap and hands it to him. He drains it. She refills it and gives it back to him, and they go upstairs to her room without speaking. Nick takes a breath when she closes the door behind them. He lies down on her bed, kicking off his shoes, curling himself up on top of her rumpled covers. It's not like he's never done it before, but it's different now. Jess sits next to him.
"I'm sorry," he says into her sheets.
"Everything." He pauses, and she waits for him to continue speaking. "The kissing. Running away. Showing up here in the middle of the night."
"Well," Jess says, "the last two are weird, and I'm mad at you for running away, but you don't have be sorry for the kissing."
Nick sits up partway, looking at her. "Why?"
It must be the way he's looking at her, and how late it is, and. "It was -- I liked it."
"I liked it too," Nick says, except it sounds like he's starting to argue with her again. Like he's challenging her in some way.
"Are we really going to fight about the fact that we both liked kissing each other?" she says, her face going a bit hot just from saying the words. She's impressed she doesn't trip over any of them.
"I want to kiss you again."
She squints at him. It's hot. Her room is too hot. "Are you...still drunk, Nick?"
"No," he says. "I want to kiss you again, Jessica. Can I kiss you again? Yes or no?"
"Okay," she whispers.
He kisses her again, hard like at the party. It's a furious kiss. She slides a hand into his hair. It tickles her palm. When they break apart she touches her mouth.
"I'll be right back," she says to him.
She splashes water on her face in the bathroom, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She looks wide-eyed. Jess flushes the toilet before she heads back to her room.
Nick's asleep, still on the top of the covers. Jess lies down next to him, careful so their bodies don't touch, and she listens to the sound of his breathing, slow and steady. She rests her thumb against his chin, and he keeps sleeping. She falls asleep facing him, her whole body feeling achy.
When she wakes up, he's gone, and there's a note:
That's it. Jess crumples it up and tosses it in the trashcan beneath her desk. For the rest of the weekend she thinks he's going to call. She jumps whenever her phone makes a noise.
He finds her at her locker before first period. She closes the door and there he is, standing there, scaring the shit out of her. She swings her backpack over her shoulder and frowns. She's still mad at him, a little bit. And Jess isn't sure where they're at right now. Friends? Maybe not. Definitely not anything more than that, even though Cece kept saying things over Facebook IM all weekend.
"I'm still really fucked up about Caroline," Nick starts.
It's not what Jess was expecting to hear. She blinks.
"But. I like you."
"Okay," she says, really slowly. She feels warm, starting in her chest, spreading out to her limbs. Cece will be glad to hear that. Triumphant.
"I'm really confused, Jess. This is hard."
She looks at his hand, holding his notebook, and the way he's shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot. She thinks about falling asleep next to him.
"I like you too," she says finally.
"Okay." Nick rubs the back of his neck. "So...what should we do?"
Jess shrugs. She looks at her watch. She's going to be late if she doesn't hurry. "You can...walk me to biology?"
He smiles. It's a small smile, but it's enough. "I can do that. Let's do that."