Jess was not avoiding his inbox.
Not actively, anyway. That would imply that what he was currently doing was just a distraction—busywork to keep him from staring blankly at the newest messages sitting in his email. And that simply wasn’t true. He absolutely had to make it all the way through this manuscript before he could decide whether or not it was worth passing on to Matt or Chris for a second opinion. And, actually, now that he thought about it, he should probably get a head start on picking over the slush pile; it was running pretty deep lately.
Okay, maybe his current workload wasn't exactly vital to the health of Truncheon Books or his continued employment, but it wasn't like it didn't need to get done. And why shouldn't he be the one to do it? It was his turn to whittle down the backlog of unsolicited submissions, after all—
All right. He could be honest, even with himself. This project of his did give him a pretty good reason not to open the email currently sitting in his Unread folder, tucked between a coupon code for UberEATS—Jesus, did he need to have another talk with Matthew about using his own email for this shit?—and an ad from the gallery down the street.
Unlike the coupon and ad, though, this email wouldn’t be sent unceremoniously to the trash.
It wasn't like he could just ignore his ex-girlfriend/uncle's step-daughter when she sent an email titled, "Editorial Expertise Needed."
Christ. His life was weird.
Then again, Jess Mariano's life had been weird long before Rory Gilmore ever came into it. That's what life was like when you had a mom like Liz. Well, at the very least, she wasn't in a cult anymore.
With that squared away and his work life trucking along at an agonizingly normal pace, it only figured that something else would rear its head to up the weird factor. Now that Rory was back at home for the foreseeable future, Jess told himself, trying to dredge up the rue that such a realization should have inspired, it might as well be her.
The rue didn't come. Neither did the impulse to pull up stakes and run as far as possible before anyone was the wiser. He could call it a lot of things. Maturity. Development. Learning from his mistakes or something. Whatever it was, Jess couldn't help but think that maybe he might actually want to stick around and see exactly how everything shook out.
That was probably the weirdest part of it all.
Funny enough, Jess didn't hate it.
With a sigh and a shake of his head—there was the rue—he turned his attention to the draft sitting on his desk and got back to work.
Subject: Editorial Expertise Needed
How's my favorite publishing professional? Have you and the boys discovered the next great American novelist yet, or are you planning on writing it yourself? I loved your last piece in the Truncheon zine—which, I have to say: I'm very impressed with your continued dedication to that particular form. I think it might be making a comeback, actually.
So. Is any of this landing?
I hope so because I really need a favor. Nothing huge! Or important. Well, it is important, I guess, just—
Okay. Trying again.
I finished my book—the book you suggested that I write, in case guilt will get me further than flattery—and I need someone to give me complete honesty about it. I'd ask Paris, but... Well. You know Paris. I don't think anyone's ready for complete honesty from her.
Seriously, though. I can't imagine letting anyone but you read it first.
If you're too busy, I totally understand, but I would really appreciate the help.
It was a few days before Jess pulled himself out of the manuscript he was vetting long enough to remember anything beyond the words on the page. He was lucky he'd managed to remember to sleep, shower, and eat, let alone the fact that his email account was steadily filling up with more unread messages. It wasn't often these days that he found an author who could so thoroughly pull him into their world, make him wish he never got to that final page. As someone who worked in publishing, it was exactly the kind of discovery he and his imprint relied on. As a writer himself, however, it made him seethe with jealousy and want to figure out how he could create something half as engrossing.
Rory's writing had always been like that. Rory herself had usually been like that, too. So much better than him in a way that made Jess both utterly self-conscious and desperate to be better. If only he didn't fuck it all up whenever he tried.
Well. That was pretty fucking harsh. Even if he weren't suffering from a literary hangover, in the best way possible, it would've felt like a rude welcome back to the real world.
Which was why he finally bit the bullet and opened Rory's email. It didn't get much more real—maybe surreal was more accurate—than a communication straight out of Stars Hollow. Even if he always thought messages from Luke should be delivered by passenger pigeon or something, it wasn't as if the town actually existed in a snow globe. Much as Taylor Doose might wish otherwise.
Jess read. And reread. And then reread again and again. Enough times that he probably had the whole thing memorized by the time he slumped back in his chair. For a long while, he just stared blankly at his computer screen, processing the simple request. It was simple, wasn't it? Words were his stock and trade, and it was all too easy for him to fall into the pit of overanalysis, wondering if each phrase had a double meaning he was meant to pick out and decipher. That was especially true when he knew a writer as well as he knew Rory Gilmore.
He scrubbed a hand across his face, laughing a little. God, he was predictable. Didn't matter how long it had been, how good and steady every other part of his life felt, how sure he was that he couldn't get pulled back in; it seemed like Jess was always going to end up right back where he'd started when it came to Rory.
Not that he was really complaining. Where he started with Rory was a lot better than a lot of other places he'd been in his life.
He swiveled idly in his desk chair, considering his options. Mostly, he tried to tell himself that he actually had options. It felt like there was just the one.
And even though Jess had never liked being backed into a corner, he wasn't exactly itching for another way out. In fact, he was already typing out a response before he quite realized he'd made up his mind.
He clicked send without letting himself think too hard about it.
This would be fine. Good, even. If he let it. If he took this as a chance to finally put the past where it belonged.
Maybe if he repeated it often enough, he'd even start to believe it.
Subject: re: Editorial Expertise Needed
Send the draft over. I'll give it a read. Then we can talk.
“You know,” he said, walking the line between sarcasm and seriousness as deftly as ever. Across the table, Rory simply lifted her brows over the rim of her coffee cup, a silent encouragement to continue. “I didn’t tell you to write a book because I wanted my company to publish it.”
He'd gotten Rory to cave on having this first meeting at Luke's, though he'd still had to come all the way to Stars Hollow for it. He hadn't really expected her to make the trip to Philly, and something felt wrong about having this discussion on his turf, but he reserved the right to be annoyed about the development anyway. And not without good reason. Al's Pancake World wasn't much better in Jess' opinion, but at least he wouldn't be pressed into service if Lane suddenly had to leave on a Steve- and/or Kwan-related emergency. Plus, this way he could say he'd once tried an Indo-Ethiopian burrito and lived to tell the tale. Hopefully, at least.
“Not just because you wanted to publish it," Rory corrected with a quick grin.
Jess rolled his eyes. She wasn't wrong, but it wasn't like he'd admit it out loud. "As your favorite publishing professional," he drawled to watch her lips quirk when the jab landed, "I would've thought I had automatic first dibs on whatever book you ended up writing for yourself."
"How'd you know I'd write a book?"
He snorted and left it at that. Or would've if Rory didn't frown at him, her coffee cup finally hitting the table.
She was serious, then.
"C'mon," he groaned, though he also sat forward and braced his forearms on the edge of the table. A new angle didn't transform her doubtful frown into something more expected, though. "You're Rory Gilmore. Of course you were gonna end up writing a book. Your own book."
She continued to frown, but it took on a more self-conscious edge. "It didn't seem so obvious to me."
Jess considered that for a moment. “Makes sense."
A disbelieving huff left her lips. "Oh, really?"
"Yeah. You were always interested in telling other people's stories. You had to be to be the next Amanpour, right?" She nodded, watching him intensely. Jess hated it almost as much as he didn't want her to stop. If he weren't in the middle of some kind of inspirational speech—which, when did he become the guy with the inspirational speeches? To Rory of all people?—he probably wouldn't hate it at all. "But. I figured if you ever slowed down long enough, stopped chasing after everyone else's stories, you'd realize your own was waiting."
That was apparently enough to get Rory Gilmore, she of the iron stomach and endless appetite, to put down her fork. She stared across the table at him, eyes gone a little misty. Just for a moment, though. Just long enough for him to have caught it and believe it wasn't a trick of the light. She blinked once, then twice, then blew out a gust of air. When she looked at him again, her eyes were clear and the doubting crease in her forehead had smoothed to a mere wrinkle.
"Thanks," she said, sending him a smile that wasn't as bright as some that still lived in his memory but still managed to kick him right in the teeth.
Jess shrugged and took a bite of his burrito to keep anything stupid from falling out of his mouth. They ate in silence for a few moments, but since no Gilmore had ever been designed with peace and quiet in mind, he wasn't surprised when Rory broke the spell.
"You know, you still haven't told me what you think of it."
Clearly, she wasn't talking about Al's foray into fusion cuisine. Though her attention was fixed near his plate, it was a few inches to the left, where her neatly typed manuscript sat, just waiting to be discussed.
"You haven't actually asked me yet."
"Fine," she started, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Even with her uncertain frown, hidden behind the challenging tilt of her chin, it wasn't at all hard to see how that sixteen-year-old Jess first met grew into the woman sitting before him. "What'd you think?"
Jess drummed his fingers on the printed draft. The pages already contained most of his reactions, but this wasn't like giving back her own copy of Howl with all his thoughts scrawled in the margins. It wasn't enough to know that Rory would exhaustively catalog his every comment and question on her own time, and no doubt come back to him with rebuttals or answers for each and every one of them. He actually wanted to go through them all with her. Let her fight him on his notes and push back while he could watch her get all indignant. He wanted to do this, edit her book and maybe even work on getting it published—even if it wasn't through Truncheon—with her.
It seemed like the only way to do this if he was being honest.
But it also seemed like a lot to ask of her. She'd just asked for an honest opinion, which he could give without diving into the editorial deep end. That might be safer. Editing and critique would require more face-to-face time than they'd had since before he ran off to California at 18. The intervening years had made them friends again, but Jess knew what too much time around Rory Gilmore did to him. He wasn't sure it was what either of them needed right now.
So, Jess hedged.
"It's a good start," he said, as neutral as possible.
Rory looked at him expectantly, and Jess stared impassively back. "But?" she prompted when it became clear he wouldn't say anything else without invitation.
"But you shouldn't settle for good." He hadn't been romanticizing things when he'd thought back on how good Rory's writing could be. It was so god damn good sometimes, it hurt to think about. But that didn't mean it couldn't be more. "You're better than good."
He watched the calculations begin to tick away in that big brain of hers. Clearly, she liked the sound of that, which didn't surprise Jess any. Ambition wasn't a foreign concept to her. She'd always been destined for more, even if she seemed to have lost sight of that lately. When her attention fixed back on him, though, the drive, the determination that he knew so well, had rekindled.
"And you think you can help me get it there?"
Shrugging even though he was as close to ecstatic as he'd ever felt, Jess replied, "I've got a few ideas."
The grin that spread across Rory's face was utterly familiar. It probably shouldn't have knocked him for such a loop, but maybe if he acknowledged it and did his best to move on, it wouldn't always.
"All right then," she said, leaning across the table and looking as bright and eager as all of his best memories of her. "Lay 'em on me."
Voice Memo, recorded Tuesday at 2:32 AM on Jess Noneofyourfuckingbusinessapple's iPhone
"Find out if she's read Anderson Cooper's new memoir. She probably has, but it doesn't— Oh, fuck no."
"I refuse to let you call me that." Jess' finger stabbed down on the page, right on top of the first mention of his fictionalized teenage self. There were a few things—more than a few, actually—that he could quibble over on his behalf, but he'd mostly let them go after his first read through. The men, the lone exception being Rory's grandfather, that drifted in and out of the pages of Gilmore Girls were purely incidental to the story. As they should be. The book wasn't about them. The book wasn't about him. Sure, there were things he'd read that grated on him, even all these years later, but in the long run, they weren't important.
Still, there was no way in hell he was going down in the annals of literary history as "Jimmy Tornetto." What the hell was Rory thinking?
Her eyes widened. "What's wrong with it?"
"It's the name of a two-bit mobster."
"C'mon! I was doing the whole Rebel Without a Cause thing." Jess stared blankly, and she shrugged. "Kinda. James Dean. Jim Stark. Jimmy."
Even that wasn't enough to save it. Jess stood firm. "Change it."
Rory's mouth twisted in obstinate displeasure. If she were a child, she'd pout and cross her arms over her chest. As it was, she just lifted her nose and airily demanded, "Well, who says that's even you?"
"Oh, you had another Bukowski-reading boyfriend at seventeen?"
Rory frowned, caught. Nose scrunching, she dutifully crossed out the name, muttering, "Tyrant," under her breath as she did it. Just to make sure he knew it was under protest.
"Yeah, yeah." Jess rolled his eyes but had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning like an idiot. "Now let's talk structure."
Don't think I didn't notice that
this draft hasn't incorporated
any of my suggestions re:
The tangents make the book!
You make the book. Everything
else is distraction.
That's just life. My life, at least.
I mean, you've met my mother.
"Oh my God, drop it!" Rory pleaded, covering her hands with her face.
"Not a chance am I dropping the fact that your mother put you in cheerleading classes."
"She was worried about my coordination!"
"And she thought humiliating you was the answer?"
"Hey! You don't know I was bad," she protested, though she couldn't keep a straight face long enough to really sell the lie.
"Right. Tell me all about Rory Gilmore, America's lost cheerleading talent."
Abruptly, she burst into laughter, louder than her slight frame should've been able to manage. Her shoulders shook as she bent over, pressing her forehead to the cluttered surface of her desk. When she finally had herself under control, even if she had to take deep, gulping breaths to manage it, she gasped, "Oh, can you imagine? Me on the top of a human pyramid waving pom poms around?"
In some ways, it wasn't so farfetched. Pretty girl with a healthy, if baffling, pride in her hometown: why wouldn't she be a cheerleader? Then again, Jess doubted Chilton indulged in anything as uncouth as football. Their chess team was probably pretty good, though. In other ways, she was absolutely right. If Rory was the type to go for the whole school spirit schtick, she wouldn't be Rory. And Jess probably, definitely, wouldn't be sitting at her desk, reading her manuscript for what had to be the fifth time already.
Suffice to say, he was glad those lessons at Miss Patty's never really sank in.
"Pretty sure you'd have had to lay off all the cheese fries for that to happen," he snarked, crossing out another extraneous adverb. Rory'd just end up putting it back in, but he couldn't call himself her editor or her friend if he just let her get away with it without comment.
All thoughts of adverbs flew out the window when her amusement transformed into shock before his eyes. Her mouth dropped open in faux outrage. Jess arched a brow in response and something bright and familiar sparked in those blue eyes he might've once spent a summer trying to properly get down on paper. He'd never quite managed it, but he'd long since accepted his faults.
Finally, she shook her head and pushed to her feet. Jess watched her round the desk and head for the door, like she was perfectly willing to walk out on him. Well, she deserved her chance. It wasn't until she actually got to the door of the Stars Hollow Gazette's front door and she turned to him, that Jess realized she might have something else in mind.
"What are you doing just sitting there?" she demanded. When Jess just cocked a brow in silent question, she rolled her eyes like the answer was obvious. It wasn't, but they could argue about that later. "You're buying me lunch for that wisecrack, and then I'm gonna put every adverb you've taken out back in."
Heaving a put upon sigh, Jess clambered to his feet. He was really going to have to insist on leaving out at least some of the adverbs, but he could definitely go for some lunch. Even if it meant staying in Stars Hollow an extra hour—or four if Liz caught wind of it.
At least the company was pretty good.
Listen, Mariano. You've got good taste in music, better taste in prose, and it can be pretty fun watching you rile up my mother, but do not get me wrong. If you bring up chapter 7 again, I will strangle you and get Lane to help me hide your body.
Subject: re: No.
Fine. Have it your way.
Subject: re: re: No.
It's just— Thematically, it doesn't fit with the rest of the story you're telling. That's all.
Think about it.
p.s. Not Paris?
Subject: re: re: re: No.
Please see subject line.
p.s. Paris said if she ever wants to run and win the race Hillary should've, she can't have this kind of skeleton in her closet.
Subject: re: re: re: re: No.
All right. All right.
Just don't tell any of my actual clients I'm such a pushover.
p.s. Why is that the most terrifying thing I've ever heard?
Jess didn't need to look at Rory to know that she was studying him, her head tipped to the side like he was another one of her subjects, just waiting to be cracked.
"What?" he muttered and sort of listened for an answer. Mostly, though, he was busy scrawling his final thoughts on the last bit of blank paper left to him. Between this draft and the last, there'd been a lot of changes, and Jess had just as many thoughts about them.
"Is it weird?"
"Is what weird?"
"Reading about yourself."
Jess' pen paused. His eyes lifted to Rory for the first time in fifteen minutes. She didn't look annoyed at having been ignored, too caught up in whatever tumult of thought and worry had tangled up in that brain of hers.
The truth was, it was weird.
Almost as weird as sitting out in the open with her in the gazebo in Town Square, drawing curious looks and speculation from locals who still weren't sure what to make of their Rory Gilmore slumming it with that Mariano kid. To be fair, Jess still didn't know quite what to make of it, either. Nearly a year into the editing process, he and Rory had settled into an easy friendship. The kind that, if they'd stuck to it way back when, maybe wouldn't feel like such a triumph now.
At the very least, Rory's question wouldn't take on such a loaded meaning, making Jess unsure of how to answer. He didn't know if he had an answer, let alone one she'd want to hear.
Not because he felt too recognizable on the page, but because a lot of the time, he didn't. The boy Rory wrote about, the one who didn't get her thing for The Fountainhead but tried reading it again anyway, the one who kissed her out of the blue at a wedding where she was a bridesmaid, the one who came back after leaving her and asked her to run away, they didn't feel like him. Not because he didn't do those exact things. He did. But because the way they all spilled onto the page painted a far kinder portrait than Jess would ever construct himself. There were nostalgia and care and even gratitude to the way Rory wrote about her past, even the parts that must have hurt.
He was all too aware that he had to account for a lot of those. Hopefully, they could keep that part of their relationship in the past and on the page.
"Is it weird writing about yourself?" he eventually countered.
Her brows furrowed, and her gaze shifted off over his shoulder into the middle distance. It was the kind of look that told Jess she was a million miles away, buried in a tangle of thoughts and ideas, and God only knew where she'd land by the time she pulled herself back. It was the kind of look that told him the girl he'd probably loved too much had grown up and become someone new. Someone he still wanted to know, of course, but new.
"It's better than therapy," she finally replied, lifting a shoulder in a delicate, if ambivalent, shrug.
"Cheaper at least," he said.
She didn't say anything else, turning her face up into the weak fall sun. If she wasn't careful, her nose and cheeks would burn. Maybe the next time he swung through Stars Hollow, her skin would already be peeling. Maybe it would be the last time he had to drive up at all; they were steadily closing in on a final draft of the book. Soon, his editorial expertise wouldn't be needed.
Jess told himself it would be fine. Seeing a little less of Rory Gilmore probably would be good for him. Good for his head, not to mention other things.
He got back to work.
Voicemail from Rory, left on Thursday at 11:28 PM, saved to Jess Noneofyourfuckingbusinessapple's iPhone
"Jess, I just had the greatest idea for the book while watching reruns of the Law and Order. I think I need to completely restructure and rewrite the third act. Call me back and tell me I'm not crazy."
Voicemail from Jess Mariano, left on Friday at 10:22 AM, saved to Rory Gilmore (Stars Hollow)'s iPhone
"No can do, Gilmore. You've officially gone nuts. We've gotta get you away from the computer and that manuscript before you really lose it. I'll pick you up at two."
She chewed on her lip, looking doubtfully down at the stack of clean pages in front of her. "You really don't have any notes?"
Surprising as it was, he really didn't. Aside from arguments they'd already gone over and over, at length and in depth, Jess didn't have any critiques he could offer. Not as a publishing professional or as a friend.
Rory seemed disinclined to believe him.
"Rory," he said, exasperated, "it's perfect."
Of course, that made her frown. God, she was impossible.
Jess loved it.
Well, it and a few other things. Which was still a thought that made him nervous. It was also a thought that'd been a long time coming, even if it felt like a lightning bolt straight to the heart the first time he found himself thinking it on the drive back to Philly, going over yet another ridiculous debate he and Rory had had over the importance of authorial intent. She'd made some quip about Death of the Author that still had him chuckling twenty minutes later.
God, I love her, he'd thought. And then nearly driven his car off the road.
He'd mostly grown accustomed to it by now, even if it sometimes threatened to bowl him over. Like right now when he told Rory her book was perfect and she just wrinkled her nose at him like he was being absurd.
"Don't be absurd," she said, making him laugh. "Jess! You promised me honesty."
"I'm being honest!" When she continued to stare at him incredulously, he shrugged. "Look, I'm no expert—"
"You literally publish books for a living."
"—and there's a certain amount of subjectivity involved, but, yeah. I think it's perfect."
Jess barely had time to get the last word out before he had an armful of Rory Gilmore, her own arms wrapped around his neck, face tucked into his shoulder.
"Thank you," she murmured. "For everything."
He squeezed her back as tight as he could and hoped like hell she couldn't feel his traitor of a heart thumping away like it'd come straight out from Poe's floorboards.
"Anytime," Jess promised, only reluctantly loosening his grip and allowing her to step back. It took a moment for her to go, a moment in which it felt like time stopped because Rory Gilmore was back in his arms and that had to mean the world was ending.
Thank God time kept on ticking.
When Rory finally pulled away and looked up at him through those long, thick lashes, he could've seen it coming from a mile away, but it was still a surprise when it actually happened.
She kissed him.
As it turned out, kissing Rory Gilmore was something that only got better with age. He'd suspected, dreamed, but it was nice having the confirmation. For all Jess had pretended to be a pretty cool customer back in his Stars Hollow days, Rory'd always had the ability to soothe and stress in equal measure. She could stir him up, turn him into a stumbling fool, with just a bat of her pretty blue eyes. He'd been so eager, so terrified, every time he was with her.
This didn't feel like that.
It was familiar, sure, but somehow felt completely uncharted. They'd both grown up a lot since they'd last done this.
Learned a few things, too.
He groaned as Rory's fingers dug into his hips, dragging him closer. Not because he didn't want to go but because of exactly how much he did. Her tongue swept past his parted lips, confident and demanding.
She could have whatever she wanted, just so long as he was still alive to give it to her. Which was seeming less and less likely as her questing fingers found the edge of his shirt and the skin beneath.
"Rory," he laughed. Jess couldn't help it. It wasn't—
He hadn't been waiting for this—hadn't spent all these years obsessing over what he once had and gave up like the world's biggest idiot—but it was such a goddamn relief to have it back.
"What?" she demanded, only pulling away long enough to get the question out.
"I didn't say it so you'd kiss me."
"Nor just so I'd kiss you," she corrected, blue eyes sparkling.
She wasn't wrong.
But natural as it felt, as good and relaxed as these past few months had been, spent relearning one another, Jess hadn't really let himself hope for it. Not that he didn't want to.
"Fine," he conceded. "What do I have to say to get you to do it again?"
When Rory grinned and leaned back towards him, Jess had his answer.
For Immediate Release:
Truncheon Books is pleased to announce its slate of debut releases for Spring 2018. Each of these authors offer a distinct and vital perspective on the world we live in, and Truncheon is proud to present their work to the public. We look forward to seeing much more from them in the future.
- The Lingering Tides by Oswaldo Diaz
- Fell Down the Canyon by Phoebe Sawyer
- At the Time by Joshua Morgan
- Tsune and the Art of Disappearing by Izumi Takahara
- Gilmore Girls by Rory Gilmore
Jess' toes could almost drag through the water as he swung his legs back and forth. Winter had begun to melt away, but he was still grateful the quiet, frigid surface remained out of reach. He'd gone for a swim in this particular pond once already, and that was more than enough for his taste.
That swim wasn't enough to put him off the pond and the bridge that stretched across it altogether, though. Out of the entirety of Stars Hollow, this was the one place he couldn't help but harbor a soft spot.
It only felt natural to spend at least part of the last day before Gilmore Girls came into the world here too.
"You ever think we'd end up here?"
The "again" remained unsaid.
Rory's head tipped to rest on his shoulder. Her shampoo was different from the one she'd used in high school, but she somehow still smelled exactly like the Rory he'd always known. And almost always loved.
He sure as hell loved her now. If she was to be believed, and he didn't see why he shouldn't, she felt the same.
"Who said anything about an end?"
"Well, it's definitely not a beginning." Not with their history, it wasn't.
Chilled fingers laced with his in spite of his combativeness. She squeezed, and warmth flared to life.
"Let's call it the middle, then."
"Yeah," Jess replied, turning his head, and—he'd deny it to his dying day—pressing a reverent kiss to her hair, "okay. Endings are overrated anyway."