The wind bites as they walk up the path to Nick’s house—Jess and Winston gripping each other’s hands, Schmidt treading lightly on the icy ground with his arms stretched out from his sides. After the steadily-growing warmth they’ve had in LA over the past few weeks, the Chicago cold feels like a punishment out of nowhere.
Nick goes ahead, his shoulders a hard line under his dark coat. Jess still doesn’t really know how he’s taking Walt’s death; he’s talked about all the stuff he has to do for the funeral, but he hasn’t talked about his dad. She wants to move forward, reach out and touch him, and doesn’t.
“Hey,” Winston exclaims. He points toward the backyard, and Jess looks over to see a wet plank hanging crookedly from two frayed ropes, tied to the sagging branch of a tree. “Our swing’s still up?”
“Ha. Yeah.” Nick stops, studying the swing thoughtfully. “How old were we when we built it?”
“Too young to make it even remotely structurally sound.” Winston chuckles.
Nick laughs too. “We fell out of it literally every single time we tried to swing on it. Why did we keep swinging on it? We were idiots.”
“Remember that time we were hopped up on sugar and turkey legs from Ren Faire, and you dared me to stand up on the thing? Flipped over and landed flat on my back, pow. Felt like part of my spine came loose.” Winston winces and rotates his waist a little. “Sometimes I still feel it popping in there.”
“Yeah, okay, Winston, I see what you’re doing,” Schmidt says dryly. “Way to play the childhood friend card.” He flips the end of his scarf over his shoulder. “Well, I’m not threatened, because Nick and I have been roommates for ten years in a row. And did you throw Nick a party for your tin anniversary? Uh, I don’t think so.”
“You are so lucky we don’t have a travel-sized jar,” Jess informs Schmidt, kicking snow into his pant cuffs with the toe of her boot.
When they reach the front door, Nick knocks, and then turns back to them and says under his breath, “Welcome to Casa Miller. Sorry about what’s probably gonna be a mess,” just before the door swings open and the commotion starts.
Jess has seen pictures of the rest of Nick’s family, but it’s different meeting all of them. She always thought he and his brother Jamie barely looked alike, but now she can see they have the same goofy smile, and when they talk in chorus she can hear some of the same notes in their voices.
Nick’s mom, on the other hand—she embraces Winston warmly, pats Schmidt fondly on the cheek, and then gives Jess a blank stare. “I’m really sorry about your loss, Mrs. Miller,” Jess offers.
“Who’s the bug-eyed one?” Mrs. Miller asks Nick in a staged whisper.
Nick looks embarrassed. “Ma. This is Jess, remember? The other roommate I told you about?”
“Huh.” Nick’s mom gives Jess a twice-over. “Thought you said she was prettier than Katy Perry.”
“Uh,” Jess says intelligently, as the embarrassment on Nick’s face shifts into wide-eyed panic and he steers his mom away into the kitchen.
After the initial flurry settles, the four of them trudge upstairs to unpack. There aren’t enough guest rooms, so they have to double up; Schmidt immediately calls dibs on rooming with Nick, with the argument that Winston had countless sleepovers here when they were growing up, so now it’s his turn. “My god, Nicholas, you’ve been holding out on me,” Schmidt announces as soon as he steps into Nick’s bedroom and looks around at the walls. “Hootie and the Blowfish? Savage Garden? And here I was thinking I knew you.”
“Do you think it’s okay that we’re here?” Jess whispers to Winston while they’re negotiating closet space in their room. “I mean, of course it makes sense that you’re here, but I’m not so sure about me and Schmidt…no, you know what, I’m just not so sure about me.”
“Jess, listen.” Winston zips up his roller bag and kicks it into the corner. “He wouldn’t have said it was okay for us to come if he didn’t mean it. I think he’s grateful for the company.”
Jess nods, and then wrinkles her nose. “Nick’s mom…”
“Is a character, yeah.” Winston laughs. “But Bonnie’s great once she warms up to you. When we were kids she used to make us these really amazing popsicles, that had like—” Then he stops and frowns. “Huh. Now that I think about it, they may have had booze in them.”
A rap sounds on the doorframe, and they both turn to see Nick standing there. “Hey, guys,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck. “I have to go take care of some stuff at the, um. At the funeral parlor.”
“Should one of us go with you? Or is there anything you need us to do here?” Jess searches his face for—a question, an ask for help, anything—but his expression gives nothing away.
“Nah. I’ve got it covered for now.” Nick gives her a tiny smile that she thinks is meant to be reassuring. “Just make yourselves at home. I’ll see you tonight.”
Then he leaves, and then Winston goes downstairs to help with dinner. Alone in the room, Jess turns up the feeble old radiator, holding her hands over it, and gazes out the window. The cold here is the kind with claws, the kind that sinks deep into your chest and refuses to leave. Outside, the streets are snowy and quiet, the gray sky already darkening further as the sun sinks out of view.
“Well, we’re here for a week,” Jess says aloud, and turns back to look at the gorilla poster inexplicably taped above the headboard. “Guess we’d better get used to each other, huh?”
The gorilla glares back from underneath his strong, magnificent brow.
A whole parade of people comes through the house the next day. Relatives who’ve driven here, or flown in. Friends of Walt’s from all over—and, frankly, from all over the spectrum of associations that are considered legal by the state of Illinois. (Schmidt introduces himself to everyone as Nick’s best friend, which makes Winston roll his eyes every single time.)
“Nick, man, you must be worn out with all this socializing on top of everything,” Winston says, when they catch Nick for a second between the kitchen and the living room. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Yeah, just delegate some of the tedious, less personal stuff to us,” Jess chimes in in agreement. “I mean, just look at Schmidt, he’s like, dying to iron a tablecloth or something.”
“Guys, I really appreciate the offer, but it’s—it’s enough that you’re here, okay?” Nick pats both of them on the shoulder. “Really. I can handle this.” Then he takes a deep breath and moves past them into the crowded living room.
So, for lack of anything better to do, Jess quietly tries to makes herself useful by watching over the kids, who are playing on the floor with an assortment of Barbies, Batmen, and Furbys. On the sofa, Nick and his mom are going through some old family albums, picking out photos for the slideshow. “Oh, god, not this one,” Nick groans after turning another page.
“What are you talking about?” Jamie leans over. “We gotta use this one, it’s classic Pop. Look at that winning smile.”
“Jamie, that is the smile of someone who has just gotten away with grand larceny. And where’d he even find the sea lion, again?”
Winston chuckles and leans over the back of the sofa to peer at the album in Nick’s hands. “Look at those sequins, man. Good old Pop-Pop.”
“Ugh, Winston, can you not call him Pop-Pop, I’ve already told you it’s weird.”
“I, too, have a myriad of fond memories of Walt,” Schmidt muses, looking wistfully past the living room curtains. “That time he climbed through the window of our dorm room because he was hiding from an angry grapefruit salesman...that time he ran an illegal blood drive out of a pre-owned party limo...”
“The bastard,” Cousin Bobby says, shaking his head.
Nick’s mom laughs and wipes her eyes. “The bastard.”
On the floor next to Jess, one of the small Miller girls scrunches up her face. “Is Grandpa Walt in heaven?” she asks Jess.
“Gah,” Jess says. “You know, Kelsey, I—that’s a big question, and I’m not really sure anyone knows for certain whether—”
Kelsey looks up at Nick. “UNCLE NICKY, IS GRANDPA WALT IN HEAVEN?” she shrieks.
Jess winces and mouths sorry at Nick, who just smiles faintly at Kelsey.
“You know, kiddo,” Nick replies, “even if they weren’t planning on letting him in, I’m sure he sweet-talked his way through the gates anyway. So don’t worry about Grandpa Walt, okay?” Then his eyes flicker back up to meet Jess’, and just for a split second the look on his face makes her forget to breathe.
Kelsey seems satisfied with the answer she’s been given, and goes back to her game. “I will take you away to my lair, to be my human bride,” she makes the Furby say in a growly voice to her Barbie.
Old Aunt Ruthie is holding a photo up to the light and cackling. “Look at that ass! Walter got that ass from me.”
After they’ve seen the last of today’s round of guests out, and they’re standing on the sidewalk watching the cars round the street corner, Nick mutters to Jess, “I need coffee. Real coffee, that tastes like gasoline and regretting getting up in the morning.”
So the two of them and Winston and Schmidt walk to the diner on the next street. They haven’t even been there two minutes when Nick starts complaining to the girl behind the counter. “Look, all I know is, the last time I was here there was a small, and a large,” he says, his voice rising as he points at the menu. “What’s with this new venti—grande—allegro cantabile nonsense? This isn’t freaking Starbucks!”
“He’ll have an Americano,” Jess tells the girl, gently elbowing Nick out of the way and sliding a five-dollar bill across the counter. “Grande,” she adds pointedly. “And just a little sugar in the espresso.” Once Nick’s grumbled and stormed his way back to their table, Jess looks back at the girl and says, “Sorry about that. His dad just died.”
The girl nods. “We know. Walt used to come in here all the time.” Then she gives a small grin. “Last time he was here, he paid in beer nuts. Which I’m pretty sure he stole from the bar next door. We’re really gonna miss him.”
The four of them squash into the booth with their coffees (but not before Schmidt jostles Winston out of the way so he can sit next to Nick), and eat forkfuls of pancake off the same giant plate in the middle. The whole time, Nick doesn’t talk, just presses a triangle of pancake into a puddle of syrup with his fork until it turns to mush.
While Nick’s in the bathroom, Jess says, “Hey, guys, I’m worried about him. He’s got so much to do, and I’m sure it’s not giving him any time to process, you know?”
“Jess,” Winston says patiently. “Times like this, I think it actually helps that Nick has work to do. And he knows we’re here, so just let him be.”
“As his best friend, I concur,” Schmidt says. Winston groans and hits him on the arm.
When they get back to Nick’s street, Schmidt and Winston race through the door, jostling each other for the hot shower. Jess hangs back a little to walk with Nick, skating down the path on the soles of her boots. “Man, I’m feeling this cold in bones I didn’t even know I had,” she remarks.
“Now you know why I turned out the way I did,” Nick says, laughing wryly. He lengthens his stride to catch up with her. “It’s these Chicago winters, my heart just absorbed ‘em all and shriveled up. Like a raisin.”
“Raisins shrivel in the sun, you dummy,” Jess replies, laughing too.
Then they both stop, and they’re standing there on the front lawn looking at each other with the quiet suspended between them, and Jess feels it tugging at something deep inside her chest.
He kissed her, one night two weeks ago, and she’s been trying not to think about it ever since. Sometimes when Nick looks at her, just across the table or from the other side of the room on an ordinary day, Jess can tell he’s thinking about it too. But it’s never been the right time to talk about it somehow, and she’s still not sure what it meant, or how she feels, or what she wants.
“Nick,” Jess says softly. “Are you okay? I mean, I know you’re not okay, but if you need to talk about—“
“I’m fine.” Nick stuffs his hands back into his pockets. “I promise, Jess. Don’t worry about me. All this stuff is—it’s cut and dried, you know? Kids are supposed to bury their parents. It’s nothing I wasn’t already prepared for.” He walks ahead then, leaving Jess standing in the snow.
After dinner, Jess decides to try and check on him again—but then Jamie and Cousin Bobby get into an argument in the living room about baked Alaska, and then Old Aunt Ruthie starts loudly insisting that there’s an air raid going on and they have to put the blackout curtains up, and the little kids take it seriously and start screaming and trying to cover the windows with construction paper, and in the fray Jess just loses track of Nick completely.
“Um, Mrs. Miller?” Jess shouts across the room at Nick’s mom, who is pinching Jamie’s ear with one hand and taking the colander off Old Aunt Ruthie’s head with the other. “Sorry, where’s—do you know where Nick is?”
Nick’s mom glowers at Jess, like she’s a security guard during the apocalypse who’s just been asked for directions to the bathroom. “Office,” she finally says shortly.
“Thank you,” Jess blurts out, and zooms up the stairs out of the way of Mrs. Miller’s laser-beam eyes.
“What is with all this commotion?” Schmidt demands as he passes Jess on the way down, his annoyed expression visible even underneath his Aztec healing clay mask. “A man can’t exfoliate in such a chaotic environment.”
As she tiptoes down the hallway, Jess slows down to look at the photos that are hanging on the wall in dusty frames. There’s Nick as a toddler, holding a newborn Jamie; Nick at maybe five or six, sitting on a tricycle, and sporting a helmet that just seems like overkill; with his arm around Winston at their middle school graduation, wide grins on both their faces as they pull each other’s caps down over their eyes.
A family photo, from Christmas; Nick looks like he’s in high school here, and he’s standing next to Walt in front of the tree. Jess notices the two of them are standing the exact same way, their hands tucked behind their back, elbows extended slightly so the two of them aren’t standing close enough to touch.
When Jess reaches the office door, she takes a deep breath and peers around the doorjamb. Nick is too absorbed in funeral preparations to even notice she’s there, sorting through papers and punching figures into his calculator. Jess opens her mouth to say something, but he looks like he’s gone somewhere far away, somewhere she can’t reach. So she retreats instead, sneaking quietly back to her and Winston’s room and shutting the door. Sitting on the end of the bed, Jess slides her palms underneath her glasses, pressing their warmth into her eyelids.
Jess knows she didn’t really know Walt, but whenever she saw him looking at Nick, she knew the look in his eyes was unmistakably love. She could tell Nick that, but she doesn’t know if he’d believe her—or even if he did, whether it’d do any good anyway.
Keep an eye on him for me, Walt had said to her, that morning just before he left. Jess wishes she knew how. She wishes this felt like enough.
On Wednesday morning, when Nick locked the guest bathroom door so he could fix the toilet tank, the three of them still thought it was going to be okay. But then after that, Nick went down to the laundry room and took the dryer apart and put it back together for no discernible reason—except he forgot to put back some important parts, like the entire inside part where the clothes go, and that was definitely cause for concern.
And now Nick has been fixing the flooring in the attic for hours, and the nonstop loud hammering that’s rattling the walls is giving them all headaches.
“Please, for the love of god, make it stop,” Winston shouts, pulling his pillow over his head.
“I’m sure he’ll be done soon.” Jess winces. “I sent Schmidt up there ten minutes ago, he’ll know what to s—“
Right on cue, Schmidt comes bursting into their bedroom, looking harried. “Well, the bad news is, bribery didn’t work,” he says, adjusting his tie.
“And the good news?” Jess yells over the sound of the electric hand drill starting up again.
“The good news is he weatherstripped the hatch, so this house is going to be really well-insulated throughout the winter,” Schmidt yells back.
Jess grabs a pair of earmuffs and jams them over her head. “That’s it. I’m going in.”
“Jess, don’t do it, it’s too late, he’s got the crazy eyes,” Schmidt calls after her as she marches out the door.
Climbing up the ladder, Jess sticks her upper body through the hatch into the attic and hooks her arms over the edge onto the floor. The air in here is thick with wood dust that makes her eyes water. Nick is on his knees in the corner, whacking a nail into the end of a floorboard with way more strength than is necessary. “Hey, Bob the Builder,” she shouts, coughing. “I think you fixed it.”
Nick’s mouth is a tight line. He lowers the hammer and stares down at the floor, breathing hard. “I have to write the eulogy,” he says finally, his voice rough.
“I know.” Taking her earmuffs off, Jess pulls herself up all the way into the attic and sits and folds her legs underneath her, looking at Nick across the floor. “You don’t have to talk about everything,” she says quietly. “You just have to say—something.”
“Like what? What am I supposed to say, Jess?” Nick raises the hammer over his shoulder and bangs it down on the nail again.
“Pick out the good parts. Say what your mom will want to hear. Say what’ll make his friends laugh.” Jess lunges at Nick and wrestles the hammer out of his hand, and only then does he stop and look at her. “Just something,” she pleads. “I don’t know, I know it’s weird, and horrible, and hard, but Nick, you have to just try.”
“Jess, I don’t think you get it.” Nick shakes his head. “He screwed me up. Like, for life. I’ll keep being screwed up long after he’s dead, and because he’s dead I don’t even get to yell at him about it anymore.” His shoulders are heaving, his jaw tense. “Instead, I have to stand there and act like—like—“
“I know,” Jess says soothingly. She reaches out to put her arms around him, but before she can, Nick moves away from her and gets to his feet.
“So you don’t get to tell me how to feel,” he grits out. Then Nick brushes past her, making his way back down the ladder. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
“I’m not trying to,” Jess says, raising her voice to compete with his as she follows him. “I just—“
“Really? Because it sounds an awful lot like you are.” Nick disappears out of sight, and Jess scrambles to slide down the ladder after him.
She hits the carpet on the landing and straightens up, panting and brushing off her skirt. “What I mean is, if you don’t do this at all—“
“My mom will. Or my brother, or any one of our five billion relatives who are in town, any of whom probably loved my dad a hell of a lot more than I did.” Nick keeps going, thumping down the staircase to the first floor.
Jess keeps following him until they’re in the front hall. “You didn’t not love your dad, Nick,” she says desperately.
“Oh, what’s that I hear?” Nick cups a hand to his ear like he’s listening for the call of an animal in the wilderness. “Could it be the sound of you telling me things again?” Then Nick whirls on her. “Look, why don’t you just stay out of it, all right? Huh? Who asked you to come here, anyway?”
Jess feels the last iota of her patience evaporate. “You did!” she sputters.
“Well, then I was an idiot!”
“Yeah! You are! You really are!”
“I’m going outside to shovel the snow!” Nick shouts, grabbing his coat and flinging the front door open.
“It’s evening, it’s gonna snow in the middle of the night and you’re gonna have to shovel it again tomorrow morning anyway!” Jess yells as he slams the door behind him.
And then the second the doorslam rings out, Jess is horrified as she realizes what she’s done. She just yelled at Nick. She’s always yelled at him—but now she’s just yelled at him when his dad died. This is probably the most thoughtless, uncalled-for thing she’s ever done to him, even counting the one time when all he did was move the peanut butter jar from the fridge to the cupboard, and it made her so mad that she called him a Mesozoic barbarian and threw her penny loafer directly at his crotch.
“So much for looking out for him,” Jess mutters to herself. “A-freaking-plus, Jessica.”
“I tried to warn you,” Schmidt says from the second floor, his head poking out over the banister. “The man’s incapable of holding more than one emotion in his body at a time. He just explodes. Like a piñata.”
Closing her eyes, Jess leans back against the wall, sinks slowly to the floor, and forces herself to take deep breaths. Then when her heart’s stopped pounding, she pulls out her phone and scrolls through her contacts.
“Hey, kiddo!” her dad says when he picks up after the fifth ring. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Jess pulls her knees to her chest, feeling the tension drain out of her at the sound of his voice. “Just…I just missed you, I guess. How are you?”
“Eh, not too bad. I tried this gluten-free beer the other day, but it just tasted like piss to me… Oh, and I got the Netflix set up! Do you have the Netflix? On the TV? Did you know they’ve got all of Seinfeld on there?”
Curling forward so her forehead is resting on her knees, Jess feels a laugh slip out of her. “Yeah, Dad. I know.”
There’s a couple inches of crisp white snow on the ground when Jess steps outside the next morning. It’s six AM, barely light, and she had to carefully extract herself from under the covers earlier so as not to wake a rhythmically snoring Winston.
Grabbing the snow shovel from where it’s propped up against the side of the house, Jess gets to work clearing the path, humming as she goes. The humming turns into singing, and before she knows it she’s doing all of Cats straight through from the beginning.
“He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair,” Jess croons, slinking down the path and doing a twirl. She’s so engrossed that she doesn’t hear the door open and close behind her. “For when they reach the scene of crime, Macavity’s not th—”
Then she hears a polite cough, and turns to see Nick standing on the front step. In the half-light, Jess can’t quite make out the expression on his face—but his shoulders are relaxed, his hands tucked into his pockets.
“Can you do me a favor and not say I told you so,” is the first thing Nick says, his boots crunching softly on the ground as he comes down the path to meet her.
Jess lowers the shovel to her side. “I wasn’t going to.”
“Okay.” Nick nods, swallowing, and looks down at what Jess thinks might be her knees. For a while, neither of them speaks.
“I’m sorry I was such an Old Gumbie Cat,” Jess says finally, at the exact same time Nick looks up and says, “Sorry for being a meathead.”
Jess raises her eyebrows. “’Meathead’? That’s what you went with?”
“I dunno, it felt appropriate. What the hell is a gumbo cat?” Nick asks.
They both grin. “Hey,” Jess says, after another moment. “I know that feelings-wise, this is stuff you have to work through yourself, but...you know it’s okay to let us help you with the rest of it, right? That’s what we’re here for.”
Nick nods, slowly at first, then more rapidly as he looks away. “Yeah, I’d—I’d like that.”
Then Nick drops to one knee, and Jess is confused for a second before she realizes he’s scooping snow up in both his hands. “Oh, no,” she says, starting to back away. “Don’t you dare.”
Nick packs a final layer of snow onto his giant, lumpy snowball, and then stands up. “What?” he asks innocently. “I’m not doin’ anything. Just clearing the snow off the path. See?” He holds the snowball out.
“You better rethink that right now, because I’m the one holding a heavy metal shov—“ Jess says, right when Nick hurls the snowball. It smacks her square on the collarbone through her sweater, the happy shock of it radiating through her chest like an extra heartbeat.
“You’re toast, Miller,” Jess yelps, shaking the snow out of her bangs, and digs up a fresh shovelful of snow so she can dump it directly on his head.
Over the rest of the day, Jess and Schmidt and Winston all help where they can: doing loads of laundry for Nick’s mom, running to the print shop, ordering flowers. Nick is still swamped with funeral preparations, talking to the family, and going over Walt’s will, so he can’t stop to talk to them too often—but every time he passes by and catches Jess’ gaze, she can see a tense sort of gratitude in his eyes.
“Nicky’s lucky he has good people like you,” Jamie tells Jess, while she’s sorting out the tinfoil trays from the neighbors that have piled up in the fridge.
“Yup, he really won the lottery,” Schmidt agrees, flapping the dish towel out from his body and folding it neatly before draping it back on the rack. “Two good roommates…and one great best friend.”
Jamie bobs his head. “Yeah, Winny’s been great.”
“Wh—no! Not Winston! Me! I’m his best friend!” Schmidt splutters, while Winston cackles merrily. “His BFF! His compadre! Come on, James, get with the program!”
Later that night, when the rest of Nick’s family have gone to bed, Jess collapses onto the living room sofa between Schmidt and Winston. “We did good, team,” she says, holding out both her hands for low-fives.
“You did. Thanks, guys,” Nick says, coming out of the kitchen. He looks relieved, much less tense than he did before today. “I mean it.”
“So is it time to unwind with…” Winston grins and produces a worn-looking deck of cards. “A game of poker?”
“Yes!” Schmidt sticks his fists in the air. “Bring it on. I’ll clean all of you out.”
“Does any of us even have actual money to play with?” Jess asks. “I didn’t bring much for this trip, I have like, bobby pins and nipple tape.”
“I’ll clean you OUT,” Schmidt repeats, thumping his chest.
A flicker of a grin appears on Nick’s face. “One second,” he says, disappearing into the kitchen again. “I think I remember where my mom keeps the—aha.“ He comes back out with a bottle of vodka that’s two-thirds full.
“Is that vodka for cleaning?” Winston squints.
Nick looks at it. “I mean…yeah?”
Winston laughs. “Perfect.”
The four of them make their way up the stairs to Jess and Winston’s room and flop onto the bed. Jess turns the radio on low to an old-timey station, and they pass the vodka back and forth and play poker for loose change and gum like they’re in high school.
Jess has a pretty sucky hand, and she’s too tired to bluff convincingly—so she folds early, and while the boys keep playing she roots idly around in the desk drawer. She finds a bunch of cassette tapes and mix CDs, something melted and sticky that she thinks might have once been a Tootsie Roll—and all the way in the back, a graph notebook that says TRIGONOMETRY in Nick’s handwriting on the front cover. “Aw, Nick,” Jess says, flipping it open. “You kept your high school notes?”
Nick looks up, and when he sees what she’s holding, a sudden panicked expression appears on his face. “Wait, no no no, don’t open th—“
Jess squints and holds the notebook closer to her face. “’Nick’s Top Secret Sexual Tension Charts’?” she reads incredulously.
“Oh my god, what?” Winston laughs, sitting up and reaching for it.
Jess holds the notebook away from him and continues to page through it. There are line graphs on each page, and every point on each graph has a small note scribbled next to it. “’Homecoming game, she waved to me across the bleachers and said hey,’” she reads aloud. Nick grabs her by the waist and tries to steal it, but she holds it high and struggles out of his grasp. “’Lunch, mentioned Starship Troopers and she said she wants to see it. Not sure if she meant with me???’ Miller, what is this?”
Schmidt is chuckling. “I can’t wait to hear the explanation for this one.”
“Ugh, okay, throughout middle school and like, early high school…” Nick covers his eyes and groans. “I put the name of a different girl I liked on each page, okay? And every time I talked to her, or whatever, I tried to graph how our interaction went so I could see if I was making any progress, and figure out like…what my chances were with her.”
“That is the most systematic creepiness I’ve ever heard of in my life,” Jess says, impressed.
“No, look, it was so if something really interesting happened, I could say that our sexual tension was literally off the charts,” Nick protests.
Winston is wiping away tears of laughter. “How come I didn’t know about this?” he demands.
“Ha,” Schmidt says smugly. “Don’t know Nick as well as you thought you did?”
“Oh, shut up, Schmidt, you didn’t know about this either.”
Jess is grimacing now as she turns the pages. “You had your teacher in here, Nick, oh my god. ‘Homeroom, Mrs. Danvers said she liked my new haircut.’”
Winston howls harder and falls back onto the bed, while Schmidt claps. “Nick Miller, you dog,” he says, pelting Nick with the dimes he’s won one by one.
“Guys, not so loud, you’re gonna wake my mom up,” Nick says, dodging the coins, but he’s laughing now too. “And Mrs. Danvers was hot, okay? She still wore her bell-bottom jeans from the seventies to school and everything…”
The night wears on after that. They give up on their poker game and play Slapjack instead, slapping each other’s hands with increasing amounts of fury and struggling to stay quiet with how much they’re laughing. Then a song comes on the radio that Jess likes, so she gets up and starts dancing by herself in the middle of the floor, and then takes Schmidt’s hands so the two of them can do what turns out to be a surprisingly passable tango.
“Sure you don’t wanna cut in?” Jess teases, looking over her shoulder at Nick sitting on the windowsill.
“I’m good.” Nick raises the bottle of vodka in her direction.
“And I’m done,” Schmidt announces. He collapses onto the bed next to Winston, who’s already sound asleep. “Trying to match your tempo is exhausting, Jessica, it’s like herding a litter of inebriated kittens,” he says, and then he’s out like a light, too.
Jess stretches, rolling her tired shoulders back, and then goes over to lean against the windowsill next to Nick. For a while they both sit there and listen to Schmidt and Winston snore in counterpoint.
“Well, I won’t be able to sleep yet,” Nick says finally in a rough whisper. He looks at Jess. “You hungry?”
They drive a little ways uptown, to a small strip of restaurants that are still open, and find an unassuming-looking Vietnamese place. Nick gets a kind of pho that Tran introduced him to back in LA, and Jess watches him wring half a lime into his bowl in silence. Something’s shifted in the atmosphere now that it’s just the two of them, but maybe it’s just in Jess’ imagination.
Jess blows on her soup and drinks from the bowl. “Mmmm,” she says heartily to break the odd silence, and then promptly and ungracefully chokes on something unbearably spicy that was probably a chili seed. “Nothing like a little capsaicin to warm you up from the inside, am I right?” she says once she’s recovered. Then she notices Nick seems to be studying her.
“What?” she asks, somewhat self-consciously. She’s wearing an extra jacket that Nick dug out for her before they left the house, when he noticed how much she was shivering. It was the jacket he wore every day in high school, he told her; there’s a grotesque-looking smiling squirrel on the back, surrounded by the words AW NUTS! in bright orange letters.
“Nothing.” Nick grins. “You look good wearing my shameful past, that’s all.”
Jess throws her knotted-up chopstick wrapper at him.
On the drive home, Nick points out the high school, the music store, and all the other places in town where he grew up—sharing anecdotes about old bullies, creepy neighbors, crappy part-time jobs. Jess looks out the window and thinks about how all of this fed into the Nick she knows. For some reason, it makes her feel wistful and almost sad.
They sneak back into the house and make it to Nick’s room without waking anyone. Neither of them pretends that they’ll be fine with taking the floor, so while Jess is turning down the duvet for both of them, she says, “Just so we’re clear, I’m not sleeping next to your feet.”
“Please. You wish you could sleep next to these feet,” Nick replies, and generously chucks the extra pillow at her.
They brush their teeth at the same time, their hips touching with how tiny the bathroom is. Then they both get into bed and lie there in the dark, flat on their backs as they stare up at the shadows on the ceiling.
“I like all your baby pictures in the hall, by the way,” Jess whispers. “I’m totally stealing some of them to bring back to the loft. My favorite is the one where you’re in the high chair wearing half your Cheerios.”
“Okay, laugh it up. And anyway, it’s not like I haven’t seen your baby pictures.”
Jess sits up. “What? When did you see my baby pictures?”
She feels him shrug in the dark. “Your mom emailed some to me once.”
“You’ve been emailing my mother?”
“That bathing suit with the polka dots was real cute. Went really well with the bra hat.” Turning onto his side to face her, Nick grins. “Also the sparkly tutu, you know, the one you had on when you built a fort out of all your Beverly Cleary books. Also, just curious, did the potted geraniums ever recover from you throwing up in them?”
Jess is glad the lights are out, because she can feel her face burning. Also, she might have to kill her mom. “Whatever. I was an adorable child.”
“Yeah,” Nick says, chuckling. “You really were.”
Jess blinks, and then lies back down. Nick is solid and warm next to her underneath the duvet. They don’t speak again for a long while, until Jess hears Nick suck in his breath.
“My dad was the one who taught me how to play poker,” Nick murmurs. “I just remembered that.” Jess doesn’t say anything, sensing he needs to keep going. “We used to play for money,” he says. “Like, actual money, from my allowance. And he took it very seriously, he never gave me back what he won off me. I had to win it back fair and square.”
Jess’ arm is flush with Nick’s, but she stops herself from reaching for his hand. Instead, she presses the back of her wrist against his for comfort, feeling the point where their bones align. “That was the difference between him and me, you know,” Nick continues. “He gambled everything away, and I learned to never take risks. We were nothing alike. Isn’t that weird?”
Jess turns her head on the pillow towards him. Nick’s still staring up at the ceiling, not moving. She can feel him breathing. “I just,” he says. “It feels like having all these jumbled-up pieces of a puzzle, you know? And like I’m realizing for the first time I don’t even really know what picture they’re supposed to make.”
“That’s okay,” Jess says softly. “Nick—whatever you’re feeling. It’s okay.”
She feels him nod, too. “Yeah,” Nick says finally, his voice scratchy. “I know.”
Slowly, Nick talks more about his dad. On and off, the stretches between him speaking growing longer and longer, until finally he’s so quiet Jess knows he’s fallen asleep. It’s not long after that that she falls asleep too, to the hollow sound of the wind passing by outside and the steady rhythm of Nick’s breathing beside her.
In the middle of the night Jess wakes up, and Nick’s side of the bed is cool and empty. The desk lamp is on, and she rolls over to see that Nick is in the chair, hunched over and scribbling something.
Jess watches his back for a long while, before closing her eyes again.
When Jess wakes in the morning, it’s to her arm across Nick’s stomach and her face against his shoulder, the top of her head tucked underneath his chin so she can feel him breathing gently into her hair. Her lips are slightly tingly and numb from where they rubbed against his sleeve. Jess presses her fingertips to her mouth, and then shifts just enough so that she’s not so embarrassingly close.
“Hey,” Nick says from above her head. From the clarity of his voice, it sounds like he’s been awake for a while.
Jess untangles herself from him and sits up. “Sorry,” she says sheepishly. “I’m kind of a snuggler.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” Nick replies, not without amusement. Then he looks up at the clock, sighs, and pushes the duvet away. “Well,” he says. “Funeral time.”
The four of them get ready without saying much. Winston zips up the back of Jess’ dress, while Schmidt readjusts Nick’s tie for him. Out on the landing, the whole Miller family slowly assembles with their usual amount of chaos, looking for lost shoes and dentures and pacifiers. Then in the middle of it all, Nick finds Jess again.
“Hey, English teacher.” Nick taps Jess on the shoulder. “I need you to proofread something for me,” he says, and hands her a slightly rumpled piece of paper. When Jess takes it, she sees it’s a page of graph paper that looks like it was torn out of the back of a math notebook, covered in Nick’s messy handwriting.
Everyone around here knew my dad, reads the first line.
Jess blinks at it, then looks up at Nick. “I charge for my time, you know,” she says, but with a small smile.
The corner of Nick’s mouth tips upward. “Remind me the next time you’re at the bar back home. I can pay you one peanut per word. And I do mean literal peanuts, we have a lot of peanuts.”
“Oh come on, at least give me the good pistachios,” Jess says, pulling her glasses out of her purse.
Walt’s funeral is like a big party. No one wears black, and some people sent balloons along with their flower arrangements, some of which are twisted into shapes that can only be called rude.There are five people in cop costumes who are definitely not cops.
Nick reads his eulogy; Jess didn’t need to touch a word of it. It’s awkward and funny and honest, and everyone laughs, even if some people wipe tears away while they do. Cousin Bobby plays the organ and everyone sings Walt’s favorite Elvis songs, swaying in their seats. It’s actually really nice.
Then Nick and Jamie and two of their cousins carry the coffin out, and Nick stands with his family as they put it in the ground. And it’s over—everyone drifting off in pockets, some of them staying to talk, others making their goodbyes and slipping off into the cold morning.
Just before they go, Nick looks back over his shoulder. “I’ll come back and visit,” he whispers. “You bastard.”
Somewhere along the way, Jess reached out to hold Nick’s hand, and instead of letting go he held on tighter. They’re still holding hands when they get back to the house.
“Winston’s right, this is a terrible swing,” Schmidt remarks. Nick is pushing him on it, digging his heels into the snowy ground.
Nick gives a shove, the seat wobbles forward, and Schmidt goes sprawling into the snow onto his face. “Oh yeah? I’d like to see you do better. You couldn’t hammer two boards together if you tried,” he says in a smug tone, while Schmidt sputters angrily.
“Switch,” Jess yells, from where she and Winston are patting snow onto their snowman’s body. She skips over and steps up onto the swing, as Nick and Schmidt obediently take over snowman-building duty.
The seat is wiggling dangerously underneath her feet, so Jess grips the ropes in both mittens. “Oh, my. I feel like a daring trapeze artist,” she says, attempting her sexiest dance.
“All right, settle down, Bombalurina,” Winston calls from behind her, getting ready to push.
Jess throws her hands in the air. “Finally! Someone who gets my musical references!” she yells, and immediately keels over backwards. Thankfully, Winston catches her before she hits the ground, his arms hooking underneath her armpits as he drags her off the swing.
“You’re a regular Skimbleshanks, Winston,” Jess says, beaming upside-down at him.
“Aw.” Winston grins. “I’m flattered you think I’m the Skimbleshanks.”
Jess points at Schmidt. “Winston, whaddya reckon? Rum Tum Tugger?”
Winston snorts. “Please. He’s the Growltiger who wishes he was the Rum Tum Tugger.”
“Ooh, sick burn.”
“Is this your weird cats thing,” Nick says. “I don’t understand the cats thing.”
Winston and Jess look at each other. “Which cat is Nick?” Winston asks.
“Grumpy Cat,” Jess says, and they both crack up.
It’s not long before a snowball fight ensues, and the kids hear it from inside the house and come running out to join them, and then some random neighbor’s dog comes running over to join them too and winds up peeing all over the lawn until Nick yells at it to go away. (The snowman gets knocked over to make a barricade to hide behind, an unfortunate casualty of war.) When everyone’s worn out and lying on their backs on the ground, Winston asks, “Hey, are we gonna stop for pizza somewhere before we go? We can’t leave Chicago without some deep-dish.”
“Getting Chicago pizza with my frieeends,” Jess sings, flinging her arms and legs wide and making a snow angel.
“My hips can’t afford it,” replies Schmidt haughtily.
“Oh, shut up, Schmidty, you’re coming with us to get some damn pizza,” Nick retorts, sprinkling more snow into Schmidt’s hair. He squints up at the bright sky, and then gets to his feet.
“My dad used to take us to this one place in the Loop.” Nick looks at Jess, and holds out both his hands to pull her up. “C’mon,” he says. “I’ll take us there.”