Esther moves into a studio because she can’t afford the one bedroom anymore, and it’s fine. She is evolving, she is in the process of beginning to evolve, she is thinking very hard about beginning the planning phase for the process of evolving. New year, new her, everything’s coming up Esther, this is her time to shine, and all that jazz. Literally: she's taking a new jazz class.
Benji helps her move because she blackmails him with pictures from his middle school play, pictures she got from raiding the secret box of humiliating memories he thought she didn't know about that she's had access to since 2014. Esther was unable to blackmail Jeffrey or Dean or Tara, but that does not surprise her. She is honestly shocked she managed to blackmail Benji at all, considering his lack of embarrassment vis a vis ska band references. But, then again, she shouldn't be looking a gift Benji in the mouth.
"There weren't enough girls who auditioned," he protested when she dangled the photo in front of him. "My grade’s demographics were heavily male!"
”Whatever.” She stole one of his fries, swatting his arm away when he tries to stop her with an elbow to her ribs. “Don’t be, like, toxically masculine.”
”That’s not what that means,” he said, but he was distracted pretty much immediately once she snatched up a fistful of food from his plate.
Still. He helps her move. She does not even look that gift in the teeth or anything.
They get smashed together. In the three foot by three foot square that she has designated as being officially her living room, her legs tucked underneath her Indian style, hunched over a cardboard box she’s using to hold up her chips and guac, Esther gets fucking obliterated on margarita mix that has survived no fewer than four moves and never runs out. It’s a Mary Poppins’ bag of marg mix. She should enter it in some kind of magical competition for certifiable oddities and marvels of the world. Like in Harry Potter.
“We should, like, decorate this place on a margarita theme,” she says, voice slurring with drunkenness (and with emphasis, she thinks. Emphasis!). “Don’t you think it would be totally cool and cheeseburger-in-paradise of me to do that?”
”Are you suggesting your new place be a partytown? Because fuck yeah.” Benji struggles with his pocket for a moment, finally pulling his phone free and slamming it on the makeshift cardboard table.
”Ew, Benji! Don’t get your ear and mouth phone germs all over my dip!”
”Partytown!” he screams and presses play on the Six Flags Vengabus Song. It blasts from the bluetooth speaker she hadn't noticed Benji set up on the ground and blares through her brand new apartment with wall-shaking force. “Partytown, Californ-eye-ay!”
They did kiss once, at a party in his brother’s house, on a dare. Esther is not the kind of person to refuse a dare, but Benji is, so it was more her grabbing his chin and forcing their mouths together before he could stop her. It was fast, close-mouthed, lips touching for the briefest moment before they both wrenched their faces away and pretended to throw up. Esther, like, actually did throw up later that night, but it wasn’t because of the kiss.
Jeffrey hollered so loudly when it happened that Esther thought it might shatter her eardrums.
”You guys are so gonna get married and make short-ass Jewish babies,” Dean said, smirking his stupid handsome smirk.
”Well, if I’m having any babies, they’re definitely going to be with a Jew,” Esther said. “My mom says it is my duty.”
Benji groaned. “Don’t say because of the -“
”Because of the silent holocaust,” she said, grinning ear to ear.
(Later, Benji held her hair back as she threw up and cried, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I don't want to throw up again I don't want to! He rubbed her shoulders and he let her put her head his lap in the bathroom. After a while, he carried her to his bed and climbed in beside her, and she whispered thank you and he said don't mention it kid and knocked her in the shoulder in a totally platonic and brotherly fashion. Esther drew her arms into her chest and pressed her body against his and breathed in his Benji smell, which at that moment was cinnamon toast crunch and fireball, until she fell asleep.)
Sometimes she thinks about it.
It is the thing they are not supposed to ever think about because he is like her brother except that he is nothing like her brother because her parents would never raise someone so spoiled except maybe her. They are good hearty midwesterners and Benji is a rich bitch Californian schlub. He is not like her brother, really, which is what most people think when they find out they aren’t dating; its more like he’s her and she’s him and how weird would it be to fall in love with and make out with and have kids with yourself.
In spite of this, she does think about it sometimes. In her new apartment with her bed in the middle of the living room and the living room in the middle of her kitchen and the kitchen in the middle of her bathroom, Esther lays awake and looks at the glow-in-the-dark stars she’d painstakingly unpeeled and pressed onto the ceiling and thinks about Benji.
It’s not that she’s not attracted to him, per se; she can admit he is kind of cute in a short-dude-who-thinks-he-has-game way, and she knows there are women in the world that exist that wouldn’t say no to going on a date with him. It’s more that, when she imagines the rest of her life, she always imagines them together. Even if she gets married which, duh, hello, of course she’s getting married, she’s had the dress and venue picked out since middle school, she can’t imagine it without Benji there. Right there. She doesn’t even know if she could love someone more than she loves Benji. Possibly equally as much, but definitely not more. And kids? She’s only ever pictured raising them with him, regardless of whether or not there is a husband or wife around for either of them. In an ideal world, they would just live at the same place all together, her and her future husband and Benji and his future wife and all their children running amok in Dean's house.
So, anyway, this is what she thinks about in her new apartment. She thinks about Benji.
Esther decides to host a house warming for herself.
”Traditionally, a persons best friend plans a surprise house warming party, of course," she says, "but seeing as you kind of dropped the ball on that one -"
"That is 100 percent not a tradition, Esther, I don't know where you're getting this from -"
"I'm just going to have to plan it myself," she finishes triumphantly. So she does.
Esther goes to Party City and buys streamers, paper plates, purple napkin, balloons, confetti, and party hats. She pinterests party games and breaks out her Cards Against Humanity deck and carefully rearranges the layout of her one big room to fit in as many partygoers as possible. She finds a recipe online for rice crispy treats and manages to make them without setting the building on fire, and she calls it a big fucking win.
The night of the party comes, and Benji gets there a half hour early. "What," he says, "is this a party for, like, a ten-year-old child? There's far too many balloons. And why does this one say It's a Girl?"
"Because I'm a girl! I'm very feminine and small and cute."
"Did Party City not have balloons that said Happy House Warming? Were you holding out for that?"
Esther pouts. "Maybe."
"Whatever." Benji drops his jacket on her bed and looks around the room. "Where the hell did you put the Double Stuff Oreos?"
The party is not too bad, which is shocking for many reasons. She can’t fit more than 15 people into her apartment at any given moment, the queso is gross and filmy on top 20 minutes into the night, and her mix finally runs out after the fourth frozen margarita.
Still, the party is loud and fun and the guests that do manage to cram into the room seem pretty happy. She calls it a success even though she doesn't win a single round of Cards Against Humanity, and she only cries about it for, like, a minute in the bathroom.
She also knows she looks hella cute because people keep saying things to her like, "Nice shirt" and "Hey" (with a drawn out "ey" part) and "You look way better without your glasses." Her contacts are bothering her by midnight, but she keeps them in to appease her adoring public.
She doesn't actually talk to Benji that much because she's too busy playing hostess, and he doesn't seem to want to compete with her for the attention. Benji is unusually subdued, his small talk normal and non-aggressive. He doesn't even try to convince her to do karaoke, not that she's ever needed convincing.
Esther catches him looking at her, from across the room, once or twice.
It happens more than once or twice, actually.
She smiles at him, her best movie starlet smile, and Benji laughs at her right in the middle of his conversation with Tara.
Something flutters in her chest. She wonders if its the early stages of food poisoning.
She wouldn't know, of course, because she's not the kind of loser who would get food poisoning anyway, so.
They met at the Comedy Store. Esther was right in the middle of her Cheesecake Factory bit, which, let the record show, killed at her high school talent show, when Benji started calling out loud and increasingly ridiculous answers for his entree. He had already said spaghetti monstrosity, pringle casserole, and broccoli cheese salad when she finally interrupted him.
”Excuse me, sir,” she snapped, “would you like to come up here and do my set for me?”
”Yeah, I would,” he shouted back. “And I would do it better than you.”
”Oh really? Let’s trade places then, you be the comic and I’ll be the drunken homunculus sitting alone at the four person high top. We get it - your parents didn’t hug you enough as a child. I have a voucher for a free therapy session given to me by my mother. Let’s connect after my set and I’ll see what I can do.”
A laugh rippled through the crowd, and Benji smiled, all teeth. “You seem like you’ve got a handle on it now, anyway,” he said.
Esther smirked, tossing her hair the way Jenna P. did in seventh grade: vain and bored and just a little bit desperate. “So, anyway,” she said. “The Cheesecake Factory.”
He bought her a drink when her fifteen minutes were up, and it was really on him how it was too much cranberry juice and not enough vodka. “I don’t have a UTI, buddy,” she shouted after the bartender, and then muttered a little lower, “Not right now anyway.”
”Oh man, I had a UTI once,” Benji said. “Here’s a hot tip: make sure you pee within five to ten minutes after sexual intercourse.”
”Oh, no, I know that, I get them from holding in my pee too long. I took a family planning class in high school.”
He snorted. “What, was that like two years ago?”
”No,” she said, “I’m twenty-three.” She smiled brightly, straightening her posture and adopting a cutesy voice. “Why, do I look like it could be?”
”Ew, gross, looking like a teenager is in no way a compliment.”
Esther grumbled. “Maybe not for you.”
Benji considered her for a long moment then, and Esther felt exposed in a way she couldn’t precisely name. She just finished telling a roomful of people embarrassing social, physical, and sexual secrets, and yet she felt more vulnerable being looked at by a short, loud stranger. “We should exchange numbers,” he said.
”Gross, no way am I sleeping with you."
”Not to sleep with you, don’t flatter yourself.” Benji shrugged. “I just feel like we’d have fun hanging out.”
She lifted her shoulders to her ears. “And why should we do that?”
”Because I think we should,” he said. He offered no other reason.
Esther wrote her number for him on a napkin from the bar, feeling very much like Rachel McAdams in a Rachel McAdams-esque movie, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Benji is the last person to leave. He always is. Esther is sober by the time the party ends, and she is about to kick Benji out when he leans on the wall by her fridge all tragic and pathetic and whines, “Can’t I just stay here tonight?”
”Um, exactly where, Benji? I have approximately two feet of personal space in here. My bed’s not even a queen.” Esther glares at him as forcefully as she can. “I repeat: my bed is not even a queen.”
”I can just sleep on the other side, Esther, a full can fit two people in it.”
”No, I am not going to let you sleep in my bed. What if you have, like, sleep sex disorder or whatever and try to fondle me in the middle of the night. I won’t be fondled.”
Benji raises an eyebrow. God, she could kill him right in his stupid face. ”I think someone would’ve told me by now if I did that. Come on, you’ve slept over at my place plenty of times, we call each other before we go to sleep anyway.”
”Not in the same bed.” Her voice is way too loud and way too high pitched, the last word ending on a squeal. Esther clears her throat, feeling very strange suddenly. She feels like an ingenue in a movie that she has yet to be cast in; she lifts her hand delicately to her neck to complete the image she has of herself in her head.
Benji looks at her. He stands up straight and pushes himself off her wall, and then the image she has in her head of herself suddenly becomes extremely real. It’s ridiculous how she is suddenly very attracted to him in that moment. It’s just the way he kicks his foot out behind him and steps closer to her, gets right in her space, all manly and stuff. She has been attracted to him before, she has felt his boner and he has smelled her panties like the pervert he is, but this is different and strange and weirdly hot. When Benji answers her, his voice is pitched low and quiet, sounding like Benji and like Not-Benji and like she doesn’t know what. “Yes, we have,” he says.
They just stand there, looking at each other for a while. Esther always has something to say, but not now. Her throat feels tight and constricted, and she couldn't talk if she wanted to. It feels like something has shifted under her feet, like an earthquake, only she googled seismic activity in the area earlier and didn't see anything. So it's just her - it's just them.
Eventually, Benji backs away and walks to the door. Esther is still standing in the same place for a while even after it closes.
It takes her a long time to fall asleep without the sound of him on FaceTime in the background.
It's not like she's never seriously considered it before. During the earthquake, right before Dean walked in, it was pretty much the only thing she was thinking about. It's hard not to have sex on the mind when your platonic best friend/clone has his hard on pressed right up against your lady bits for a good minute. Even aside from that, sometimes, in her more lucid moments, she does wonder why the hell they don't just sleep together - it's all everyone tells them to do, including two actual certified professionals.
Esther is not stupid. Delusional? Yes. Annoying? Absolutely. Crazy? Jury's out but definitely leaning one way. But stupid? Never. She took an AP class in high school. She even got a 4 on the exam!
So yes, she's thought about it. Maybe sometimes more than others.
Maybe more now than she did before.
Esther decides that the best thing for their friendship/relationship/marriage is a little space. With her moving to the new place and everything, Benji doesn't have a key yet, and she figures it's the perfect opportunity for new Esther and Benji. Esther and Benji 2: The Non-Codependent Years!
She does a Sephora brand unicorn face mask and puts her phone on Do Not Disturb. Esther is going to leave him alone and be her own person and she will not sleep with him to fix their relationship, damn it. She's decided.
She sleeps with him.
What it is, is that Benji apparently gets tired of waiting for her to answer his texts and shows up at her apartment. Because he still doesn't have a key, he's just waiting outside the door for her when she gets back from Speedway. He doesn't say anything while she walks up, and so she doesn't say anything either, just opens the door to her apartment to put the groceries away. He shoulders his way in behind her. She can hear his oddly small, flat feet.
"Why are you avoiding me?" he says as soon as she turns around. He doesn't phrase it like a question, though, more like an accusation in court. He sounds suspiciously rehearsed, which does not shock her. She's seen him practice his arguments in the mirror before.
"Ugh, as if, Benji." Esther does that patented Jenna P. hair toss. "I'm not avoiding you, god. I'm just, you know. Taking some time to myself."
"We don't do that." He takes a step toward her, his hands clenching up into fists. She hates it when he does that, he looks like a little kid about to throw a tantrum. On other men she'd be intimidated, but with Benji any semi-threatening action just seems silly. "That's our dynamic, Esther, that is what we do, we don't 'take some time' for ourselves. You've been leaving me on read. On read, Esther!"
"We are codependent!" She blurts it out like a frog leaping out of her mouth, like a tiny little frog that's been living in her croaking and croaking away and making her be a completely insane person. And now there's that frog leaping all over the floor, vomiting all of her, ugh, actual feelings to her best friend in this whole entire bitch of a world. "It is weird, our relationship is weird, and I'm trying to evolve, or, you know, I'm thinking about trying to evolve, and we're never going to be normal, well-adjusted thirty year olds with spouses and adopted racially diverse children unless we have some semblance of a life away from each other!"
"Yeah, well, maybe I don't want that, Esther! Maybe if you'd actually talked to me instead of radio silence, I could've been on board with this!"
"No, you would've just suggested we have sex because you're so totally in love with me, it's obvious, and I don't want this to be the dumb thing that ruins our friendship forever like your brother says because Dean is a dick and I don't want him to be right about anything anymore ever!" With every word, she gets louder and louder, until by the end she's built up to a scream. Benji gets really close to her then, like, so close she can see all his unshaved stubbly beard hair, so close she can see herself in the reflection in his eyes. So close she can feel the heat of him radiating toward her, and it makes her shiver.
"I'm not saying we should sleep together," he says way too loudly right in her face. "I'm just saying, if you want to be a grownup then be a fucking grownup and talk to me for once, really talk to me, instead of hiding away like Emily Dickinson."
"Don't you dare call me Emily Dickinson, you asshole. You know I hate being compared to notoriously un-hot people."
Benji pauses for a moment, and then -
And then he laughs. "You are so fucking awful," he says, his smile so wide she thinks it might actually split his face in half, and then, he, like. You know.
He kisses her. It's a nice kiss, not too much tongue on anything, and she isn't even that weirded out by the fact that it's Benji, and so she kisses him back.
And, yeah. Then they sleep together.
"Seriously, there are actually fucking crumbs in your underwear, what the hell is -"
"Shut up, Benji. You wanted the Esther experience, you're getting the Esther experience."
”Fine, fine, but let the record show, I am a saint for putting up with this.”
”I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in saints, but yeah, fine, you’re a saint. Now eat me out before I cry.”
Benji laughs against the inside of her thigh and something twitters in her heart like a little cartoon bird from Snow White. “Yeah,” he says, “you got it, babe.”
She lets him stay the night, and he steals all the covers of course because a full is totally not enough room for two people. In the morning when he wakes her up by making her toast with cinnamon and butter on it for breakfast, she decides not to whine too much about going to get a breakfast burrito and instead only suggests it very gently and not at all in a pushy way.
They end up postmates-ing the breakfast burritos. Esther eats hers in bed while Benji eats at the table because he is very much against food in sleeping spaces, and they spend the whole day watching and criticizing old episodes of Cheers using her ex-boyfriend’s Netflix account. They both love Sam & Diane, and they both hate Sam and Diane individually by themselves. It’s not as bad as she thought it would be.
It’s pretty great, really.
But she will still never admit that everyone was right. Some things, she says, you just have to belligerently refuse to admit, even until the day you die. Just like OJ Simpson.
”Absolutely,” Benji says very seriously. His hand strokes a circle on her shoulder, and Esther leans her head back against his chest. “Just like OJ Simpson.”