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The First Rule of Book Club Is You Absolutely Talk About Book Club

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Janelle has been holding Book Club for a year and a half when the first man joins. 

Until now, it's been only ladies. She hung a sign in the library when she was new in town and wanted to make some friends--people who like books are her kind of people. She didn't mean to form a women-only group, but it kind of shook out that way. So now they get together once a month and talk about the books and eat tiny snacks and drink kind of a lot of rosé. Everybody gets to suggest books; they put the names in a jar and draw them out to pick which one to read next. 

They met in the library the first several times, but as Janelle got to know them better, she suggested they meet at her place, so they could have snacks and drinks while they talked. Clara has hosted a couple of times, and so has Priya, but most of the time, it's Janelle. She's never minded, just like she never minded getting the ball rolling on the group email, and honestly, she didn't even remember that there were still any flyers up in the library. But there must have been, because the email says the guy--James--found it there.

The email says he's new in town too, and that kind of gets her; she knows just how that feels.

She runs it by the group, because this is not a booktatorship, and everyone is a little excited about a new member. They've gained and lost members over time as people's schedules or interest shifts. Clara worries that bringing in a man will change the group dynamic. That he'll talk over the rest of them. Janelle says they can always boot him out if that's the case, and they decide to meet at a restaurant this time, both for safety reasons in case he's a weirdo and so if they don't like him, it'll be easier to get rid of him. 

She emails him back with the details and the book (Neil Gaiman's American Gods, author's preferred edition) and tells him she'll see him the Thursday after next, and if he doesn't finish the book between now and then, he can just talk about what he's read as long as he doesn't mind spoilers for the rest. She doesn't tell him that he's the only guy. He'll figure it out. 

The restaurant is a little tapas place over in Lakeview. Janelle and Priya get there a little early, Janelle because her social anxiety requires her to make sure nothing's gone wrong with the reservation, and Priya because Janelle is her ride. Janelle booked the private dining room so they don't have to talk over other diners, and it turns out that was a good idea, because their newest member is quiet. 

James gets there precisely at seven o'clock. Janelle and Priya and Clara and Holly are already there, hugging and catching up. Miriam, Kimiko, and Jo are running late, and Danika had to bow out because her son has a stomach bug.

 Janelle's the first to see him, because she's been watching the door. He hovers for a second, watching. He's younger than she expected, with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and a hoodie on over a t-shirt and jeans. His left hand is in his pocket and his right is holding a paperback copy of the book. He's got blue eyes and cheekbones like the cliffs of Dover. She does not swing that way, but even she can tell that as far as gentlemen go, he's pretty attractive. 

"Hi, you must be James," Janelle says, slipping by her friends and holding out her hand, because he looks shy, and she knows how hard it is to come up to a group of people that clearly already know each other well. "I'm Janelle."

"Nice to meet you," he says. His voice is soft, and a little lighter than she expects coming from such a broad chest. He shifts the book under his left elbow so he can shake her hand. Miriam and Kimiko roll up, and Janelle makes introductions all around. Jo's always fifteen to twenty minutes late, so she can catch up when she gets there. By the time they've ordered the first round of snacks and wine, they're ready to get down to the book. 

James doesn't say much, but he's listening intently as the rest of them talk, getting passionate about what they liked and didn't like. Part of Janelle wonders if he actually had a chance to read the book, but the rest of her is prepared to bring out her crazy theories about who the forgotten god is. On the second bottle of wine, Kimiko is talking about the interstitial chapters about how the gods came to America and how they relate to the main plot. (American Gods was her suggestion and she is here for it. Janelle knows she has a t-shirt with Samantha's speech printed on it and wonders how much she regrets meeting in a restaurant, because she would 100% be wearing it if they were at Janelle's place.) They're on the third bottle of wine, talking about one of the bad guys, Hinzelmann, when James finally speaks up. "I thought his characterization was really well done," he says. 

"What did you like about it?" Janelle says. Mentally, she gives herself a fist bump. She was afraid he wasn't going to say anything. She knows the group of them can be pretty intense once they get going.

"Even though he does such terrible things, Gaiman does a good job of making him sympathetic. Likable, even." James flushes a little. "It makes the terrible things even worse." 

"Yes! Exactly," Clara says. She's maybe drinking a little faster than the rest of them. "That's one of Gaiman's strengths. Though they've all done bad stuff. Look at Wednesday. Even Shadow." 

James doesn't really speak up again. The discussion winds down and they pull the paper from the jar. Next month's book will be The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. As they're getting ready to leave, Janelle corners James.

"Did you have fun?" she asks. Everyone is grabbing their purses and getting ready to go. Priya hangs by the door, waiting. 

"Yes." He smiles, and it changes his face into something more approachable. "Thanks for letting me come." 

"Of course! I hope we see you next month." 

As he turns to leave, the cuff of his sleeve catches on the table, pushing it up a couple of inches, and Janelle catches a glimpse of his...metal wrist. Now that she thinks about it, he kept his hand in his pocket or under the table all night. Her heart immediately swoops into the vicinity of her stomach. God bless, he has a prosthetic and is maybe a vet in addition to being new in town, and there is no way he isn't joining Book Club if that's what he wants. 

The group email chain is approving. 

He likes Neil Gaiman, I'm going to get him reading Sandman, Kimiko writes, and after that the whole thing is everyone suggesting more shit for him to read, and a few of the likes-dudes ladies taking the off-ramp to objectificationville, and rather than Janelle playing the he-needs-some-friends-and-we-can-be-those-friends card, she now has to worry that they will overwhelm him with friendliness, and frighten him off with their too-muchness. 

Okay, she writes, I'm adding him to our list. Try not to thirst where he can read it.

And she starts a new email, with one extra address.

*

"I did like the epistolary format, and it was certainly engagingly written--"

"Thank you, James! It is not pedestrian--"

"--but the good Nazi plot ruined it for me. 'He was my friend'? Bullshit!" James flushes. "Excuse me. Sorry. It would be one thing if the text examined that a little more deeply--"

"You didn't think it was a commentary on the complexities of living under occupation?" Miriam leans forward. 

James crosses his arms over his chest and makes what Janelle can only describe as a rude noise. "Not as it was written. Not with a Nazi. Seriously, fuck Nazis." He uncrosses his arms, face red again. "Sorry." 

Book Club is definitely keeping him. 

*

"Some readers have found Nick's point of view flat and affectless."

"I did think he lacked emotional range at first, but once the book got going that authorial decision made a lot of sense. What was your favorite part, James?" 

"The relationship between Nick and Alan. Even when Alan was outright lying to him, it was so clear that there was nothing he wouldn't do for Nick." 

*

"So I think we can all agree that The Salt Roads was a difficult read in places because of how rough the characters had it."

"Yes, but God, so worth it. The language was so beautiful and the stories so compelling, the way Hopkinson weaves the different timelines together."

"I, um. The best part to me was that even though there was so much suffering, it still felt like an overall hopeful book. Like even though they went through all that shit--sorry--it was still worth living their lives."

*

"I'm just saying, it's made for reading aloud. The language is..." Danika kisses her fingertips and tosses the kiss into the air. She read A Wizard of Earthsea out loud to her kids and she has been talking about how it's practically poetry for most of the meeting. 

"Ged's final confrontation with the shadow was very moving." James balances a cracker on his right hand. He's got a glove over his prosthetic hand, but it's out of his pocket now. Janelle's not going to ask him about it, but she's glad he feels comfortable opening up to them that much. "Giving the darkness he summoned his own name and accepting it as part of himself...it was a powerful moment." 

"What did you all think of Roke?" Kimiko asks. "It was fun for me to read about a wizard school predating Harry Potter." 

"What's Harry Potter?" James says, and is immediately subjected to eight gimlet stares. 

"I'm sorry," Priya says, "but I think we need to skip the jar tonight so James can read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for next month."

James looks nonplussed. "But you've all clearly already read it?" 

"James, this is a cultural touchstone for millions of people and you should know it. I think we can handle rereading it," Janelle says. She can tell Kimiko is already trying to figure out how to push The Books of Magic on him. 

*

from: pdiddykapoor@gmail.com

to: BookClub (group)

re: emergency meeting

 

I am meeting Janelle for drinks and comfort at Red Bar at 5:30. Susan dumped her. :( 

Anyone who can make it is welcome.

xxxx

Priya

*

Janelle doesn't usually drink G&Ts on account of how gin-drunk Janelle is morose Janelle, but she'd really liked Susan and if she wants to wallow in it, she's allowed. Priya is joining her for one glass of wine and then switching to soda because she is a gift to humanity and a good friend. It's super last minute and a weekday; Janelle doesn't expect anyone else from Book Club to show up, so it's a surprise when James walks in as she's telling Priya, "I'd have been willing to try long-distance, but if she doesn't even want to try, then I can't make her. That's the worst part--she doesn't even want to try."

"She's letting you go too easy," Priya says.

"I'm sorry about your girlfriend," James says as he walks up. 

"Thanks for coming." Janelle tries to smile, but it's a little watery, and it is way too early in the evening for it to be the gin. She is sad to lose Susan, of course, but what hurts the most is the feeling that she isn't worth fighting for. 

She already knew Priya was a good listener, but it turns out James is too, and neither of them mind when Janelle tears up a couple of times. After they settle up, James walks them down the block to Priya's car. She didn't have him pegged as the hugging type, but he folds her up in his arms for a second anyway and tells her "It'll be better. Maybe not tomorrow, but it will." 

*

Book Club James: Would it be okay if I brought a friend to the next meeting? 

Book Club James: I made him read the book.

sure! always happy to meet another reader

Book Club James: He's visiting from out of town.

Book Club James: I want him to meet my friends.

james u can bring a friend anytime u want :) :) :) 

*

Janelle is not sure how many other friends James has. She's delighted he counts Book Club among them.

*

James is a big guy, but the way he holds himself, you can kind of forget it. His friend is enormous and there is no way of ignoring it. Hi-I'm-Steve enveloped Janelle's hand in a giant paw, presented her with a bottle of rosé and a bouquet of orange daisies with red-tipped petals, and is currently making her loveseat look like doll furniture. Hi-I'm-Steve is as handsome as he is built, in that way that makes him look almost familiar. Janelle's sofa has never had this many cute white boys on it. James sits next to him, actually smiling with his whole face. It's freaking adorable.

The rest of Book Club thinks so too, Janelle can tell. She's not sure how James found the only other adult who has never heard of Harry Potter, but James at least was into it enough that he's already on Prisoner of Azkaban. Steve talks about how effectively Rowling gets sympathy for orphan Harry. Miriam talks about the playfulness of the language. James talks about the disconnect between the children and the adults. He confesses that his favorite characters are Professor Lupin and Sirius Black, and the conversation veers ahead a couple of books. No one minds. 

Janelle catches Steve looking at James with an absolutely gooey expression on his big open face and her breath catches a little. If Susan had ever looked at her with one tenth of that adoration, she'd have tried anything to make it work with Janelle.

Kimiko has brought the first trade collection of the Books of Magic series and presses it into James's hands as the meeting breaks up. She's telling him about the similarities and differences. Steve helps gather up the wine glasses and the decimated charcuterie plate. 

"Thanks for letting me come with him," he says.

"Of course," she says. "Any friend of James's is a friend of ours."

Steve puts his hand on his neck. "I don't know if he's talked to you about it, but he's had kind of a rough time. I'm real glad he found you all." 

"We're glad he found us too," she says. "Next time you're in town, you're welcome to come back." 

James catches her eye from the kitchen doorway, his hand wrapped around his books, and gives her the sweetest smile for being nice to his friend. 

But she sees Steve before his next visit. She sees Steve the day before Book Club.

She is chopping up vegetables for soup and watching the news when we-interrupt-this-broadcast flashes across the screen and there's a breaking story about Sokovia with the Avengers fighting...robots? And a city floating in the air? The city crashes to the ground. The Avengers are status unknown. The newscaster airs a brief clip of an interview with Captain America with his cowl off after the alien thing in Manhattan, and holy shit, Captain America is Hi-I'm-Steve. She had Captain America on her love seat making doe eyes at James. What even is her life. 

holy crap priya turn on the news

Priya Is The Best: ok I'm watching. this thing with the Avengers???

STEVE IS CAPT AMERICA 

STEVE ROGERS IS JAMES'S STEVE

Priya Is The Best: what?!?!?!

Priya Is The Best: are u sure? 

positive

oh man i bet james is freaking out

Priya Is The Best: we cannot CANNOT tell him that we know

Priya Is The Best: if he wanted us to know he would have said

ur right, my lips = sealed

but i'm going to make sure he's ok

*

everything ok?

Book Club James: yes? 

i get stressed by world events sometimes, wanted to be sure u are alright

idk your story & u don't have to say, but if terrorist attacks like in sokovia are bad for u, i'm here if u need me

Book Club James: I'm okay. Thanks for checking on me. I'll see you tomorrow.

anytime

*

James does not look okay. He looks like he didn't sleep at all worrying about his maybe-boyfriend, maybe-friend-with-a-crush-on-him, definitely superhero-who-just-had-a-city-fall-on-him all night. A lot of people died, but Janelle checked the news this morning; Captain America was not one of them. The bags he's sporting under his eyes are big enough to hold Clara's entire shoe collection regardless. 

The book is nonfiction; rare for their group, but Miriam had suggested it. It's a book of essays about gardening, and Janelle found the voice charming while she was reading it, but right now she's more worried about James. Maybe he knows something she doesn't--he's Steve's friend or whatever after all. He is almost as quiet as he was the first meeting he attended, barely voicing an opinion besides that he liked the prose. Janelle exchanges a worried glance with Priya, who shrugs. Right. Janelle can't say anything. James catches her looking at him a couple of times, and she tries to look away so she won't seem like a weirdo. 

Everyone else leaves. James helps her clear away plates and pick up glasses. He dries the glasses and then helps her put them away.

"So..." he says, and Janelle has to bite her tongue a little. "You've been giving me funny looks all night. Do I really look that bad?"

Now she feels like an asshole. "No," she lies. "Sorry. I just--I saw the news yesterday and..." She struggles a little bit. She does want to respect his privacy, but she's made it obvious that she knows and now it's going to be weird if she doesn't say anything, either. "I know you must be really worried about Steve."

His eyebrows twitch a little. She bites her lip. "Yeah," he says after a minute. "I am worried about him." 

"I'm sorry," she says again. "I wasn't trying to pry or anything. I just recognized him when I saw him on the news."

"Yeah, well." He rubs his face. He really does look tired. "I've been worried about him my whole life. It's nothing new." Which is kind of a funny statement, since she remembers when they found Captain America in the ice. It was only a few years ago.

"Do you want a cup of tea or something?" It should probably be decaf from the look of him, but she's got plenty to choose from.

"Please." So she gets the kettle going and making the mugs keeps her hands busy for a little bit. "I won't say anything," she says as she hands him his cup. "It's not my business what your friend does for work."

That actually gets a smile out of him. "Thank you," he says. 

"Priya knows who he is too," she says. "Sorry about that. But she won't say a word either. We both know if you'd wanted to tell us, you would've." 

"If it was going to be anyone here, it'd have been you guys. He likes you," he says. "All of you. He was really happy to get to come last time." 

"How did you guys meet?" Janelle's tea is too hot. She takes a sip anyway.

He meets her eyes and doesn't look away. "We grew up together."

She frowns. "But Steve was born in, like, the twenties." 

"Nineteen eighteen," he says. 

"So you--" He looks at her. She stops. Tries again. "You were born then too? How are you even here?" Is he fucking with her? Why would he do that? 

He taps something into his phone and hands it to her. It's just Steve's Wikipedia article. She looks up questioningly, and he sighs. "Scroll down to 'Early Life.'"

And then she sees it. "Inseparable in schoolyard and battlefield..." and there it is. A picture of Captain America with his arm slung over James's shoulder. Only James is James Buchanan Barnes, and holy shit, she wrote an essay on him in middle school. "It says you died?" comes out as a mortifying squeak, but it's okay, because James laughs. 

"Yeah, well. It didn't take. Kind of like Steve." But James isn't out there dressed up and fighting bad guys and getting cities dropped on his head. He's here, with a prosthetic arm, coming to Book Club. She doesn't think he just slept under the ice for all that time. Some other flavor of bad shit happened to him. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone else. Not even Priya." 

"Of course," she says. "I won't. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"You're doing it now," he says, and then he shrugs. "You've been doing it all along." He tilts his head a little to look at her again. "I'm telling you now because I want you to know."

She has to take another sip of tea to hide how much she kind of wants to hug him. "I'm glad you're here, James." 

"Yeah," he says. "Me too." 

*

A week later James texts asking if she can meet him at Red Bar after work. He texted her instead of inviting Book Club, so she doesn't mention it to Priya. She has kept her word and completely sat on the fact that James Buchanan Barnes, Howling Commando, America's Favorite Sergeant, etc, is alive and in her book club. Because sure, he's all of that, but he's also the person who read ahead in Harry Potter and told her things would get better when she was sad. 

James is not alone. He and Steve (Captain America Steve, god damn) are sitting at a table where both of them can see the door and the room and Janelle is reminded that both of them are (or at least were, maybe, in James's case) soldiers and probably kind of twitchy.

"Hi, James. Hi, Steve. Good to see you again." She smiles and slides into the booth. 

"Glass of rosé?" James asks, and sidles off to get it at her nod. Being alone with her friend's friend who is also a superhero whose identity she accidentally figured out is not actually the most awkward situation she's been in, but that doesn't make it comfortable. 

"So," Steve says after a minute. "Bucky tells me you know who we are." 

"I saw you on the news," she says. "He told me who he was himself."

Steve's expression morphs through about three increasing levels of joy. "That's great. I don't know what else he said, but he's had kind of a rough time." 

"He didn't say anything about that, but I kind of guessed." No matter how shiny the prosthetic, it probably wasn't much fun to get, not to mention whatever happened to get him to now. And there's something about James's quiet, about the rarity of his smiles; he has a lot of shadows. 

James comes back with drinks, and the smile he turns on Steve is almost unbearably fond. They talk about nothing, and when Steve excuses himself to the restroom, James turns to Janelle with a more serious look on his face, and she braces herself. But he surprises her. 

"Priya's your best friend, right?" 

"Yeah." She doesn't have to think about it. Priya is, in fact, the best. 

"You ever think about dating her?" 

Janelle has to cough when she inhales wrong and alcohol gets into her sinuses. "No," she says when she can talk again. 

"Why not?" 

"A lot of reasons," she says. "One, I don't think of her that way. Two, she doesn't date the ladies. Three...I guess I can stop at two."

"What if you did think of her that way?" James's eyebrows have pulled together into a thick black line and he is looking at her like her answer really matters.

"We aren't talking about me and Priya." His brows beetle a little bit more. "Okay, so I will say this really fast before Steve comes back, and then you and I can get together when he's out of town again or you can text me any time at all. If I did like Priya that way, it might be hard for me to talk to her about it because I'd be worried about messing up our friendship. She's my best friend, but I've only known her a couple of years. But...if I had a friend I'd known my whole life, who jumped out of an airplane and single-handedly took out a fortress full of Nazis to find me, maybe I'd be a little less worried about losing his friendship if I told him how I feel. Whew." She takes a sip of her wine and sets the glass down. "I mean, hypothetically speaking." 

James nods slowly, eyes sliding past her to the bar where Steve has stopped on his way back to get another round. "I'm...that sounds like good advice."

"Let me know if you take it, okay?" She reaches out and clinks her glass against his beer bottle. "And hey, I'm getting the next round, you guys can't keep buying me drinks." 

Then Steve's back, and the conversation drifts down a less fraught trail. Janelle tries not to let the weirdness of who her friends are overwhelm her, and in the end, she has a good time. She hopes James does too. 

*

so did u talk to him???

Book Club James: Not this trip. 

u can do it :thumbs up emoji:

Book Club James: :smiley face emoji: 

*

Two books go by before Steve visits again. 

Janelle makes a point of inviting James out between Book Clubs, both with her and with Priya. He usually comes to whatever she invites him to, so she takes the opportunity to educate him on MST3K, Drumline, and the local zoo, because the cloud leopard just had a baby, and that shit is adorable. She doesn't push about Steve, because he doesn't need that kind of pressure. 

"Steve's coming to visit," he tells her while they're eating popcorn and he's about to learn about The Golden Girls.

"Great!" she says, and "Is he coming to Book Club?" instead of "Are you going to TELL HIM?" because that would be rude. 

"If that's still okay." 

"It's fine, of course." She scoops up a giant handful of popcorn and shoves it in her mouth so she can't bug him about Steve. 

*

Steve comes back into town for In Other Lands, which Janelle could not have planned more perfectly if she meant to, because if James is not going to talk to Steve, then maybe they could both stand to read the book about the giant golden athlete and his bookish, angry best friend pining all over each other. 

They both seem to have enjoyed the book, but that's all Janelle can tell. Not that it's any of her business, except she wants her friend to be happy. 

As everyone is digging into how they feel about the harpies, Janelle goes into the kitchen to open up another box of crackers, and Steve gets up to follow her like a six-foot blond shadow. 

"Pass the Triscuits over here," she orders. While she's busting open the plastic, he turns a smile on her she can only describe as luminescent.

"I think I owe you a thank you," he says. 

"What for?" she asks, in the most innocent voice she can summon while secretly thinking Yes! Get it, James.

"Well, for being his friend, first of all." Steve fans out the crackers on Janelle's cat platter.

"You can't thank me for that, James is great." She adds a few more slices of summer sausage; there's still plenty of cheese. 

"No argument here." Are the tips of his ears turning redder? Maybe it's the wine. "But I think maybe you gave him some specific advice, and I definitely want to thank you for that." 

"Oh! Well, good." She sticks the little cheese knife back into the cheese and picks up the tray. Steve takes it from her. "Make him happy, okay? Book Club want to see him happy." 

"I'll do my best," Steve says, and then turns the human embodiment of the heart eyes emoji on James as they come back into the living room. 

"It was really affecting when Luke came to terms with his heritage and stopped thinking of himself as a monster," James is telling Kimiko. "And the way Elliot helped him get there--"

"Elliot is the best," Danika says. "He weaponizes teenage sarcasm it in the best way." 

"Okay, so the third thing I want to thank you for is introducing Buck and me to all these books," Steve whispers. "It's been great for both of us." 

James catches them watching and holds up his paperback, waggling it at both of them. Steve swoops in with the replenished cheese platter. 

Janelle picks up the jar, ready to pick next month's book.