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Paper Boat

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When she slings her bag over her shoulder after class, Victoria can feel the itch in her throat, the familiar need for a smoke that she’s been avoiding all morning. It’s hard to stop the cough that threatens to come out, though she holds her breath until she’s in the loud Blackwell halls before releasing it. It’s quiet and raspy, and once she’s cleared her throat, she’s sure she needs a cig.

It’s overcast outside, or… something. The weather is that kind of cloudy that’s calm and dull, like if clocks didn’t exist, the passage of time would be unnoticeable. Like it could stay that way for decades. The low heel on her shiny new brogues clicks light against the concrete outside, and she sifts through her bag for her pack of Marlboro lights. Too much to do, the terrifying feeling of falling behind on work makes her mind start to race with anxiety and fear. Only about 30% of it is irrational.

A tap on her shoulder immediately materializes her fears into a yelp that erupts from her. Her smoking buddy laughs half-heartedly at this, flicking open his lighter and sparking it. She rolls her eyes, but accepts. Nathan smiles when he sees the gentle quirk of her lips she tries to conceal in an attempt to seem unbothered.

She exhales a plume of smoke into the grey abyss of concrete and clouds, watching while Nathan pulls out his own pack. Reds. She’s not sure if he’s just playing tough, or if he actually likes those. Still, she can’t help but stare at them with discontent, recalling the coughing fit they caused her to have the first time she tried one. Gross.

Nathan leans up close to her and presses the tips of their cigarettes together, puffs a few tiny drags before pulling away. It feels intimate the way sharing sweaters does.

“Aren’t you suspended?” she asks, making little steps towards him. They both prefer standing close together, talking quietly.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t visit to see if the place is still in one piece,” he jokes. Really, though, after the stunt he pulled the previous Friday, it’s a wonder more people aren’t talking about it. Used to be, burning student records because of bad marks would land you in the local paper. Nowadays, everyone seems to be too used to chaos, dysfunction is the new status quo. She’s partially relieved about it, though. It seems gossip has slowed down and, as amusing as listening to other people’s drama can be, it’s not really that fun when it’s her own dirty laundry that’s being aired out.

“Hey,” he says, “Drinks and Netflix at my dorm?”

“Can’t. Too many projects due yesterday,” and her eyes move down to their feet, she taps her shoe against his.

“Even more reason to unwind,” he grabs her bicep before sliding his hand down to her wrist, along her hand til their fingers entwine for a moment before it drops back to his side, “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she gives a small smile, “But no wine.”

Nathan laughs, probably remembering how utterly sad and funny Victoria becomes when she drinks red wine. Her cheeks go pink despite knowing he means nothing by it, so he stops. Still, she bumps her fist gently onto his arm.

“Dick.”

“Bitch.”

Ha.”

On the walk back to the boys’ dorms, she watches Nathan respond to a few people that greet him and she thinks of the way he acts around others. Wonders if he’s like that with everyone but her, the tough-guy charismatic-but-unapproachable type, and she can’t help but feel a bit special at that thought. Like maybe there’s something intimate that’s only for her to see. Or something.

The whiteboard outside his dorm has LEAVE ME ALONE scrawled on it in red marker, like he spat it out right from his chest. As Nathan fumbles with his keys, she leans over, picks up the marker and draws a little heart next to it. He raises his eyebrows at her, but stays silent.

Inside, it smells like old smoke, so Victoria cracks open a window ever so slightly. It’s dark, the blinds still wound tight and letting in only tiny strings of light that draw little lines on the carpet. As soon as he locks the door behind them, the air around Nathan feels less tense. The sharp line of his shoulders drops slightly. He breathes out audibly.

When she turns around, he’s right behind her, and he’s always had a light step so she shouldn’t be surprised. Still, it draws a sharp breath from her. They lock eyes and his pupils aren’t skywide for once, his eyes aren’t hazy or unfocused. He looks at her for real, baby blues she wants to stare at until their nerves entangle. But, god, he looks sad.

“Nathan,” is what she whispers, when she doesn’t know what else to say.

His eyes twitch for a second, a moment of tension and fear, and then he’s right back to looking at her.

“What’s wrong?” her voice is soft and he exhales a laboured breath at it, “Are you okay?” and she’s staring at the dark purples under his eyes, like he’s either been sleeping all day or not sleeping for weeks. It’s always 0 or 100 with him.

“Nothing, I—“ as if he’s trying to reform his thoughts, like there’s a cacophony inside his head he wants to phrase in a way she might understand. She can see his eyes looking for ways to say it, “Too much,” he says quickly, “Too much everything. Trying to stay clean.”

She knows he means the coke. Knows he spent the first week sweating bullets, puking lunches and sleeping all day. It’s better now.

“Good,” she responds, grabs his hand something determined and pulls it up, places a kiss to his perpetually bruised knuckle, “You’re good.”

He leans his other hand against the wall they’ve backed into, looms over her like he’ll devour her whole, but she knows he’s all spine and longing. She tips her head up towards him, invites him to lean down and their lips are barely touching when she feels her eyes and ears get hot. It’s him that moves the final millimeter between them, locks them together. They stand like that for a bit, kissing languid and she wraps her arms around his neck, one hand playing with his soft hair.

After they separate, he’s visibly steadier. His hair’s messed up and his jacket’s halfway down his bicep but he looks calmer, easier.

“Wanna binge watch Stranger Things?” it’s hardly a question since she’s already making her way towards his desk and grabbing his laptop, “Or laze around with some Tarantino?”

Uh,” and he takes this as a prompt to pop open the bedside table he keeps his drinks in, “Pulp Fiction sounds pretty good right now.”

They huddle together on his bed with a bottle of expensive vodka and a carton of orange juice, and when Victoria takes her first sip, her face contorts at how hot it is going down before she tries to drown the alcohol in OJ. It sorta works, but she still feels it in her stomach when she passes him the bottle. He winces the same way, but toughs it out.

Halfway through the movie, they’re more drunkenly cuddling than paying attention to Uma Thurman coming back to life with a syringe piercing through her vomit-covered button-up. When she drinks, Victoria feels air-light, easy and not quite herself, but not quite anyone else either. She’s half-lying on Nathan, smelling his cologne like in the books she reads, and nuzzling up against his neck like a cat.

He looks down at her and smiles, so she props herself up on her elbows and gives him a peck on the lips. She tastes the booze on him, the same that’s making the inside of her mouth numb and the bottle’s half empty when he slides his tongue against hers. It feels a bit gross, but she’s drunk so she goes with it.

Once she’s had enough and her mouth feels sticky, she leans back. Tries to focus her eyes and get a good look at Nathan. He seems to notice, and quirks his lips incredulously.

“What?” he sounds half amused and half genuinely curious.

“You look really good,” she blurts out, before losing the strength in her elbows and falling with her face on his chest. They both laugh, and she feels it rumble in his ribs, feels the tiny breaths he takes as they just lie there laughing at the absurdity.

He exhales deep and stares at the ceiling, and she figures his chest is as good a place as any to rest. The steady up-down movement of breathing under her feels like waves, makes her feel alive and more aware of her own breathing, and she imagines they’re floating on an ocean somewhere.

“We should go to Bora Bora,” and when he stays silent, she’s not sure he hears her, so she takes a breath and starts again, “we should—“

“Yeah. In the summer, just you and me,” and it sounds like he’s telling her a dream he had. It sounds dreamy anyway.

Absentmindedly, she thinks about how she must be getting makeup on his shirt, so she raises her head and puts her hand under her cheek as a barrier. Now Nathan’s heartbeat is thumping beneath her fingertips, something deep and frail at the same time.

She’s not sure when she falls asleep, but it feels warm and hazy when her eyes flutter open, and it’s even darker in his room than it was before. She couldn’t have been asleep that long, she thinks, since she still feels drunk. Nathan seems to be napping under her, breathing slow and shallow just like she’s read about in psychology. REM sleep or something. Not wanting to wake him up, she slowly rises up and sits next to him on the bed.

His hair’s all in his face, which is relaxed for once. It makes her feel guilty when she wonders if that’s the only time he really looks serene. She brushes his hair from his forehead and the pads of her fingers catch on his cheekbone, then down to his clean-shaven jawline and she feels the little bit of stubble threatening to appear. He stirs at this.

It’s the evening, the digital clock on Nathan’s bedside table reads 9PM, makes her remember all the responsibilities she’s tried to push aside for the day. She remembers Nathan’s words earlier. Too much everything is right, she thinks.

The smoky smell has nearly dissipated, the cool outside air only warmed by their shared body heat. Crickets are audible outside, as well as the sound of passers-by talking about whatever. While she’s looking at the window, Nathan wakes up at the grating sound of a car horn somewhere in the distance.

“Sorry,” she says, “I’ll shut the—“ but she feels his hand on her arm, tugging at her to lie back down. So she does.

It feels even more intimate this time, she watches Nathan’s blues lazily stare at her as he wraps his arms around her middle. She does the same, and his breath is terrible. Fruit juice mixed with ethanol. Leaning up to kiss him anyway, she lets one hand rub at the back of his neck affectionately. It’s cold when she feels his fingertips sneak under the hem of her shirt and gently dance on her lower back. His hands are always cold.

“Sleep here tonight,” he says. There’s nothing but intent in his words, like he’s stating a fact. But when he sees her hesitate, his defenses go down, “Please.”

Damn. Something about his face makes it hard for her to say no to him, and she thinks of how long it’s been since they had a proper sleepover. Then she nods.

“Okay.”

The deep exhale he gives could move the Earth. Like someone lifted a giant boulder from his ribcage, like he held his breath for years.

She runs her fingers along his forearm, along the lightly raised bumps of white lines that seem uncountable. The first time she saw them, Nathan was so angry and embarrassed that he screamed at her to leave. Yet now, a few months after, he only tenses for a second until he relaxes under her touch. She avoids touching the ones she knows are newer, wishes she could kiss it better like she would a grazed knee. That’s how it works, right? In all the movies, the boy kisses the girl’s scars and it’s romantic and perfect. Thinking about this, she lifts his arm up by the wrist, presses her lips to the back of it.

It’s feather-light and he’s avoiding her eyes, but not moving away, so she places another kiss right next to that one. Then she kisses his hand, lowers it back down and tangles their fingers together.

Vic,” it sounds like he hasn’t spoken in years, raspy and quiet, but he stops there. Like he’s not sure what to say next. He looks for places on her, his other hand is touch starved, and he presses it to her cheek and watches as she nuzzles into it gently. The air of the room feels warm and intimate, significant, like they’ll melt together.

“This is the corniest shit you’ve ever done,” he jokes. It’s light-hearted, she knows.

Pretending to be offended, she furrows her brows and huffs. Nathan just laughs and presses a kiss to her a forehead. It feels good to be close like that, somewhere they can both be calm and not have to think about other people. She hopes Nathan can feel like that, at least.

They don’t even bother getting out of their clothes, she undoes Nathan’s belt for him and tosses it across the room and removes her bra from under her shirt before they curl up under the blanket they were lying on. It’s warm and the window stays open all night as they sleep.

Victoria’s alarm shocks them both awake at 6AM, and Nathan is the one who grabs her iPhone X from the bedside table and turns it off before shoving it under his pillow out of habit. He mumbles something incoherent and slings an arm over Victoria, pulls her a bit closer and keeps his eyes shut as she stirs awake.

“Hey,” she turns around from lying on her back to face him as birds chirp outside. The hangover from yesterday is there, but it’s dull and light. The kind that makes her feel sick all day, “You okay?”

Nathan just hums in response, opening his eyes little by little to get used to the light. They’re teary and red in the mornings, and his hair is messy.

“Lucky it’s Saturday, huh?” her morning voice is a bit lower than usual, quiet, hard to get the words out like her throat forgot how to make a sound, “Wanna get coffee?”

“Slow down,” he mumbles out before turning around and sitting up, “We’re not going out looking like this.”

Fuck. She remembers suddenly that she forgot to remove her makeup and slaps a hand to her cheek.

“Oh fucking dammit,” she exclaims, all the fatigue from before gone as she gets out of bed and makes her way to the bathroom mirror. The sight is unsavory.

Her hair is oily at the fringe, so she pushes it out of her face, and her mascara has transferred to her under-eye. She’s shining like a beacon and feels disgusting, so she gets ready to tell Nathan she needs to use the shower. Instead, as soon as she turns around, she sees him standing behind her in nothing but his boxer-briefs.

“Slow down, Romeo,” she says, “I need to shower too,” though she knows they can both fit in the small cabin, and she’s not entirely opposed to the idea. When Nathan’s hands go to undo the buttons on her shirt, she lets him.

“I don’t see a problem with that,” he says.

Each time, though, she feels anxious at him seeing her body. Something deep inside her gut feels small and ashamed, like an animal shaved bald as he drags the fabric down her arms and lets it drop to the floor unceremoniously. She looks at the ground and undoes the zipper on her skirt. Pulls it down, along with her tights and now they’re even. His hand is on her hip and she leans up to press a kiss to his jawline as he plays with the band on her panties. Right.

Once they’re both nude, it feels less scary. She can’t help but watch the expanse of his skin, littered with tiny beauty marks like constellations. He gets in first, and she follows. It’s not something they haven’t done before, though it’s rare for them to do it without aggressively kissing and trying to tear each other’s clothes off first. This time, it’s slow. Even the water is on a light stream, and Nathan gets his hair wet before grabbing the shower head and holding it above Victoria so she can do the same. When she steps forward, their abdomens are touching. It feels primordial, like this is how they were before the universe expanded and made them separate. Nathan hands her the shower head, leans over and grabs a bottle of shampoo from behind her.

“Wait, let me,” he undoes the lid and pours some onto his hand before indicating for her to turn around. He rubs it into her short blonde hair, massages her scalp gently, “I know it’s not the one you use,” he sounds apologetic almost, like he wants to tack on a ‘sorry’ to the end of his sentence, but he doesn’t.

“It’s okay.”

No one’s washed her hair for her since she was a little kid, the age where she’d bring toys to the bath and put suds on her face like a beard. When he’s done, she rinses it off before swapping with him, and she’s sure he expects her to just put the bottle down, but she pours the same shampoo in her hands and repeats the same circle hand gesture.

“Oh.”

But he complies, and even though she has to reach up a bit to reach his hair, she does her best not to get any shampoo in his eyes while also lathering all his hair with a nice coat of bubbles. She slides her hands down his neck and along his scapula while he rinses his hair off. Then, she wraps her arms around his middle and rests her cheek on his back, pressing herself against him. The way they’re standing, she can feel every movement of every muscle in his back, and her hands are on his stomach, playing with the fuzz on his abdomen.

They stand like that for a bit before finishing their shower and turning off the water. The mirror and tiles are foggy and the bathroom is warm and smells like how Nathan smells when she sees him in the morning. They share a towel, and she feels less insecure. The makeup is completely gone from her face now save from a few tiny smudges of mascara. She wipes her face with the towel before passing it to Nathan and walking back into his room with nothing on.

Since she always forgot to bring a change of clothes when she slept over, Nathan bought her a few things to wear and even gave her a drawer in his dorm. She slides it open and sifts through PJs and cashmere blouses until she finds a shirt she likes, a pair of pants and some undies and socks, and then she bends over to pick up her bra from yesterday off the floor. It’s still clean.

By the time they’re both ready, it’s 9AM. Victoria knows her boyfriend was never a morning person, knew it’s rare for him to be up this early. They put their shoes on and head out into the crisp winter air for coffee.

“No makeup today?” he asks.

“I don’t exactly carry all my makeup with me in my bag,” if it were anyone else, they’d think she was being snarky. Nathan knows better, though.

“Shame,” he jokes, and she bumps her fist into his arm lightly.

He shoves her with his elbow, and she pushes back. At the end of it, they thread their hands together and Nathan pulls out his phone and checks his Twitter.

“Shit,” Victoria stops in her tracks, “Nathan, where’s my phone?”