She faced forward, stifling a sigh, and willed the bus to move faster. Not for the first time did she regret never learning how to drive. If not for her reliance on public transportation, she wouldn’t be late, and she wouldn’t be feeling anxious about being late, on top of the stress of presiding over an entire classroom of science students. She had plenty of experience as a tutor, but teaching and tutoring were two very different beasts, and she wasn’t entirely sure she would be able to tame the former.
Of course, feeling nervous about teaching was much easier for her to deal with than feeling anxious about going out on a date, even if it was with someone she’d known for the entirety of her life. Charlie Thomas had been her next-door neighbor for fifteen years, before moving across town with his family after his mother remarried. Ironically enough, that was when they’d become friends. They’d kept in touch over the last few years; she’d helped him choose which college to attend, and what subject to major in. He’d called her a couple of times since the start of the summer, so she’d thought nothing of it when he suggested they go to a movie and maybe grab a bite to eat afterwards.
No, it wasn’t until her younger sister, Claudia, learned of their plans that Janine realized the trouble she was potentially stepping into. It was Claudia who pointed out exactly how many times Charlie had called (six) or stopped by their house (two) that summer. It was Claudia who was convinced that his interest in her extended beyond mere friendship. It was Claudia who suggested that dinner and a movie was more than a simple invitation to “hang out.”
After all, she pointed out, they’d never gone out together before. They’d been invited to the same events, yes, and had met spontaneously for lunch or coffee a couple of times, but going out alone at night was apparently a sign that Charlie was interested in her romantically. Janine had scoffed – after all, she’d had plenty of dinners with friends at MIT, and had even caught a movie or two with some of them – and none of it had ever been more than mere friends finding time to be social outside of class. Claudia had then made a snide remark about “nerds practicing their social skills on each other” that Janine had chosen to ignore, but her younger sister’s logic was harder to dismiss. After all, Claudia did have a lot more experience with boys and dating, and was much more practiced in the art of flirtation and romance.
And, of course, there was the fact that Charlie Thomas had already kissed her, way back on New Year’s Eve. True, she’d kissed him first, but her kiss had been a mere peck on the cheek. He, by contrast, had taken her hand, and pulled her close, and kissed her fully, his lips warm and soft yet firm against her own. It still gave her gooseflesh if she pondered it for too long. There was no mistaking the meaning of his kiss – it was decidedly non-platonic.
And yet – after that, nothing happened. She’d gone back to MIT, and he’d gone back to UCLA, and neither one of them had spoken of that kiss again. His postcards from school were funny and friendly, and he kept her in stitches with his outrageous stories whenever he called. There had never been a hint of romantic intention – at least, not an obvious one.
Besides, Janine considered herself a pragmatist. It was much easier to consider him a friend, and to not worry about intentions or consequences or entanglements. If she wanted to find someone to date, there was certainly a surplus of eligible men at MIT.
The bus hurtled into the Stoneybrook train station and screeched to a halt, drawing Janine from her thoughts. She sat there for a long moment, allowing her fellow passengers to disembark before standing up, gathering her belongings, and descending the stairs. She felt like she was moving in a fog; only an instinctive glance of her wristwatch brought her fully back to reality. She had ten minutes until the movie started, and the theater was a mile away.
“Well,” she mused to herself, “I suppose this is why God gave man feet.”
She started to walk.
“Hey!” he called with a wave.
“Hello,” she returned in a rush, greeting him with a rueful smile. “I do apologize for being late.”
“Eh, no problem,” he replied with a dismissive wave. “I wanted to meet a bit early anyway to hit up the concession stand, so it’s not like we’ve missed anything important. Who needs previews?”
He grabbed her hand and turned to the ticket booth. She stumbled beside him, surprise washing through her as she gazed down at their joined hands. She certainly hadn’t expected that – but Charlie seemed completely unfazed as he ordered their tickets, passing a credit card to the teller to pay for them, and taking the tickets, his receipt, and the card back, as if he was quite used to only having one free hand.
Janine was still staring at their hands when he looked at her again. “Ready?” he asked.
She blinked, wondering if he realized just how loaded that question was. Ready for what? she thought to herself. Ready for this to be more than a casual friendship? Ready to be seen in public holding hands with you, as if we always do this when we’re together?
He waved the ticket he was offering to her with a teasing smile. “Earth to Janine,” he intoned.
“Oh – yes,” she finally replied, feeling foolish as she took the ticket. He had the grace not to laugh at her, at least. Instead, he held the door open for her, and gestured for her to go through the turnstile first. They quickly found their theater, had their tickets torn, and went in.
The theater was dark, the previews already rolling as they crept down the aisle. “There they are,” Charlie whispered, nodding towards a row near the middle of the seats.
“Who?” Janine whispered back, but he didn’t seem to hear her, instead drawing her towards a pair of seats on the aisle covered by a large, dark jacket.
Janine’s heart sank when she realized who was waiting for them.
“There you are!” Sam Thomas hissed, grabbing up his coat. “I thought you’d never get here!”
“Oh, please,” Charlie returned with a sardonic smile as he slid down next to his brother, “it’s not like we’ve missed anything important.”
“Are you kidding?” Sam replied. “The ‘no-cell-phones-please’ and ‘buy-our-overpriced-concessions’ shorts were masterpieces of cinematic animation.”
Beside him, Stacey McGill rolled her eyes.
Janine stiffly lowered herself into the aisle seat as the previews came to an end. She sat, her back ramrod straight, and stared straight ahead, not really seeing anything as the feature presentation began. The only thing worse than feeling unprepared for a decidedly non-platonic date was feeling unprepared for a double date – with two of the last people on earth Janine felt comfortable around.
Charlie leaned into her. “I’m going to get some popcorn,” he said softly. “Do you want anything?”
She shook her head, still looking straight ahead.
He climbed out into the aisle and headed for the lobby, giving their erstwhile companions their first good looks at her. She couldn’t help but glance at them from the corner of her eye; both of them appeared to be surprised when they realized it was her. Stacey’s mouth actually fell open, though she hastened to hide her reaction.
“Hey, Janine,” Sam greeted her softly.
Her smile was tight as she glanced over at them, offering a curt nod in return before turning back to the screen.
She couldn’t believe it. She was not only on a date with Charlie Thomas, but also with his brother – and Claudia’s best friend. Judging by Stacey’s bewildered expression, Claud obviously hadn’t shared her conspiracy theory about Charlie’s motivations with her. Janine couldn’t help but despair, just a little. It was already awkward; she could just imagine what sort of blow-by-blow account Stacey might offer to Claudia at the conclusion of the evening.
Charlie returned, offering soft apologies as he climbed back into his seat, and Janine felt her cheeks burn. He was being so gentle with her – what in the world must Sam and Stacey be thinking?!
She didn’t have the courage to find out. Instead, she sat very still in her seat, her hands folded in her lap, every muscle in her body frozen in place. She tried to concentrate on what was happening on screen, but she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. All she could think about was just whose bright idea this was – and whether or not this actually constituted a real date.
Janine made a mental list.
According to Claudia’s criteria, these facts were in favor of considering this a real date: it was prearranged; it was happening after dark; he had taken her hand upon meeting her, and had only let go of it when they’d sat in their seats. On the other hand, they were not alone, he hadn’t tried to flirt with her, or kiss her, or really make any sort of overtly romantic gesture towards her.
Janine chewed on her lip. She couldn’t decide whether she felt relieved or disappointed.
Either way, she couldn’t relax. Charlie kept offering to share his popcorn with her, even though she turned him down every time. Beside him, Sam had his arm around Stacey and they were whispering to each other over their shared box of popcorn. She’d nudge him every so often, digging her elbow into his ribs, but that only seemed to encourage him to continue with his running commentary.
Janine attempted to watch more of the movie than their fellow companions, but it completely failed to capture her imagination. The audience around her laughed several times, but she failed to find anything amusing on screen. Instead, she worked to ignore Sam and Stacey’s increasingly flirtatious lovey-doveyness, and the way her insides were knotting up with each passing second, and her own irritation for agreeing to this spur-of-the-moment invite instead of doing the right thing and concentrating on her lessons for the summer science course. It was only going to last for six weeks, and she had a lot of material to pack into that time period. Did she really have time for this sort of frivolity?
It felt like an eternity before the final credits started to roll.
She was the first one out of her seat, shooting out of the theater at her first opportunity.
She didn’t realize just how quickly she was moving until she heard Charlie call out to her. “Janine, wait!”
She slowed her step, clutching the strap of her messenger bag with both hands, but couldn’t quite bring herself to look at him.
“Janine,” he said breathlessly, coming up behind her, “are you mad at me or something?”
She swallowed hard, not quite sure how to answer that question. Was she upset with him, for getting her hopes up and then dashing them in possibly the cruelest way possible? Being on a double date with Sam and Stacey was a nauseating enough prospect, much less a surprise double date. And they were very obviously on a date, considering the way that their whispering and giggling during the movie had quickly progressed to kissing. There couldn’t have been a much starker contrast between the two of them, who could barely keep their hands off of each other, and her and Charlie, who had barely spoken ten words to each other. Was that what he expected of her this evening? She wasn’t sure she was capable of being so openly affectionate in public – Sam and Stacey had no shame, at least not under the cover of a darkened theater.
Or was she simply making something out of nothing? Was it, as she’d suspected before all of Claudia’s nonsense, just a casual evening hanging out with friends? And if this was supposed to be just that, well – it was pretty obnoxious to invite along another couple who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves.
Yes, she decided, she did have a reason to be miffed at him. Still, it went against every social nicety that had ever been ingrained in her to be outright rude to him in public.
“Why do you ask?” she finally replied, forcing her lips into a smile that she didn’t really feel.
He furrowed his brow as he studied her. “Because you’re acting like you’re really annoyed with me,” he observed, scratching the back of his head. “And, um, if I’ve done something to piss you off – well, I’d like to know what it was, and maybe have the chance to redeem myself?”
He looked so earnest that she couldn’t help but indulge him. “Well, I must confess that I wasn’t expecting company this evening,” she admitted. “I thought it was just going to be you and me.”
Charlie winced. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that,” he apologized. “I didn’t realize Sam and Stacey were ‘on’ again. They can be pretty obnoxious, can’t they?” He chuckled. “Anyway… I only invited them along because I didn’t want to make you too uncomfortable. I mean,” he added hastily, taking in her surprised expression, “it’s just usually easier to ease into these things in a group setting… Isn’t it?”
Janine squared her shoulders, drawing herself up to her full height. “I am perfectly capable of being on a date, alone, without extra companions,” she informed him haughtily. “In fact, I prefer it.”
He lifted a brow. “You do?” he intoned suggestively.
She couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Charlie Thomas, get your mind out of the gutter,” she declared with a wry smile. “You are not the first man who’s ever asked me out, you know.”
“I’m sure I’m not,” he replied easily.
That brought her up short, but she continued with her train of thought nonetheless. “I did have the customary high school sweetheart.”
He laid a hand dramatically over his heart. “You mean, you weren’t pining away for me in high school?” he teased with a grin.
It was her turn to appear nonplussed. “No,” she drawled. “And even if I had been, I doubt you would’ve noticed, given your harem of admirers.”
“I would’ve noticed,” he remarked, resting both hands on his hips. “After all, you’re not like anybody I’ve ever known, Janine, which is why I’ve wanted to get to know you better.”
She flushed, unsure of how to respond to that.
Charlie checked his watch. “Well, we were planning to meet at Pizza Express after the movie. Do you want to do that, or would you rather be alone?” he asked, leaning close to her and practically purring his final suggestion.
Although it was quite obviously a joke, he didn’t back down from his offer, his gaze hooded as he awaited her response.
Janine’s eyes widened as she regarded him, the double entendre of her previous declaration suddenly hitting her. She did like him, and she was pleased to have clarification that he did consider this a date, but she was still unsure of what his expectations were, especially of what would constitute ‘alone’ time. It had taken all of her resolve to even show up this evening; she wasn’t sure she could handle much more.
“Um, Pizza Express is fine,” she finally croaked out. “I am rather hungry.”
“Even after spending such quality time with my brother and his girlfriend?” Charlie responded, sounding surprised. “I’m shocked that you’re not nauseated.” He draped his arm around her shoulders. “Shocked, but pleased.”
“Why?” she inquired curiously.
“Well, for one thing, I like a woman with an iron constitution,” he replied as they started off in the direction of the pizza parlor. “And for another, I wasn’t yet ready for this evening to be over.”
It was, needless to say, a surreal experience for her, because most of the people who were so eager to talk to him had roundly ignored her in high school. Now, not only did they actually acknowledge her existence, but most of them smiled at her and greeted her by name. Of course, they all wore equally surprised expressions when they realized that she was there with Charlie, but no one made any sort of (audible) catty remark about it.
Mercifully, they managed to find a relatively quiet corner booth. Charlie had just stepped away to place their order when Janine noticed Sam and Stacey heading towards her. He, too, had his arm around her shoulders, but they were lost in their own world, with eyes for no one but each other. Again, Janine couldn’t help but notice the contrast between them – so seemingly in tune and at ease with each other – and her and Charlie. She wondered, for a moment, what it was like to share such instant chemistry, and if that made the flirtatious banter and open, obvious affection easier to indulge.
It must have, because they were oblivious to everyone around them. Janine couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about, but she was pretty sure she caught the word “embarrassing” escaping Stacey’s lips. The two abruptly dropped their conversation when they spotted her at the table, making Janine wonder if it was her presence that was at the center of their conversation.
She didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“Hi, Janine,” Stacey greeted her, sliding into the booth across from her. Sam followed suit, his arm still around Stacey’s shoulders.
“Hello,” she returned awkwardly. She cleared her throat. “Charlie’s ordering the pizza for us.”
“Hey, Janine, you’ll appreciate this,” Sam spoke up, leaning forward. “Guess what the topic for my final paper in my analytics class was.”
Janine considered his question for a long moment. “Did you analyze a piece of music?” she mused aloud.
“See!” Sam proclaimed, turning to Stacey, gesturing at Janine as if the answer was obvious. “It’s not completely out of left field.”
“Indeed not,” Janine supplied. “Quite a few of the boys in my mathematics analysis class chose music theory for their final papers.” She primly pushed the bridge of her glasses up the slope of her nose. “It is one of the simpler analyses to perform, especially on short notice.”
Stacey stifled a laugh at that, while Sam appeared mortally offended. “Music may be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he shot back. “Sometimes it’s like going down the rabbit hole, straight into the uncanny valley.”
Janine simply shrugged, smoothing a napkin in her lap.
“You want to take a crack at the song he chose to analyze?” Stacey asked.
Janine glanced from her to Sam and back again. “I… don’t think so,” she answered, noting the telltale teasing smile curling the corners of his mouth. Sam Thomas had a strange sense of humor, so there was no telling what he’d chosen to inflict upon his poor professor.
“Here, I’ll give you a hint,” Sam said, climbing out of their booth and dropping a couple of quarters in the parlor’s jukebox. A heavy bass beat filled the room, causing the floor to rumble beneath them. A collective grumble arose when the rest of the patrons realized what song he’d chosen.
“I drive these brothers crazy / I do it on the daily,” Sam sang, bopping his way back to their table. “They treat me really nicely / They buy me all these ices…”
Stacey groaned, burying her face in her hands. “I think I liked you better when you were flicking Cheerios on my toast,” she muttered, as Sam continued to sing/shout the lyrics to the offensive song.
“Who the hell put that song on?” Charlie asked as he approached the table with their pizza. One look at his crowing brother answered his question. “I should’ve guessed,” he deadpanned, sliding into the booth beside Janine and setting their pizza on the table.
Balled up napkins flew in their direction from all sides as the collective conversation in the restaurant swelled, trying to drown out the music.
Janine gazed curiously from Stacey to Charlie to the people around them. She’d heard the song before, and thought it insipid, but not really worthy of this universal overreaction. “Why did you choose this song?” she shouted in Sam’s direction.
Stacey shoved a piece of pizza towards him, as if to silence him, but he batted it away. “Because it’s actually interesting, even beneath the controversy of the lyrics,” he replied, picking up his own piece of pizza and biting into it delicately. “It’s built on a sample of a little-known electro funk tune from the early ’80s, but the Peas added an interesting melody line with the lyrics.” He mimicked the high-low of the false melody line as the second verse played. “Plus there’s the content of the lyrics themselves, and what sort of comment they make on love – ”
He continued to explain and eat calmly as the world erupted around him, all wound up by someone daring to play “My Humps” in a crowded establishment. A jukebox war roared into existence, as opposing crowds chose the most annoying songs to play, one after the other. Janine strained to hear Sam’s explanation under the deafening shouts, but she noticed after a moment that she was the only one still paying attention to him. Stacey had edged into the corner, studiously ignoring him as she picked at a plain piece of pizza. Charlie looked as if he’d rather be anywhere but there, keeping his head down and eating as fast as he could.
Their pizza disappeared in no time, even as Sam continued to drone on.
Charlie found Janine’s hand under the table and clasped it, startling her. She turned just as he leaned close to her, making her heart skip a beat.
“Let’s get out of here,” he proposed in a low voice.
A gleam of desperation sparkled in his eyes, but it was the steady pressure on her hand that convinced her to leave with him. “Okay,” she agreed. The two of them slipped out of the booth and managed to make it out of the pizza parlor in one piece.
They walked silently down the sidewalk, still holding hands, the pandemonium of Pizza Express steadily fading into the background.
“That was…interesting,” Janine said after a long moment. She wasn’t sure if she felt more bewildered or amused by the strange turn their evening had taken.
Charlie snorted. “That’s Sam for you,” he remarked dryly. “I didn’t realize he was going to regale you with the finer details of his analysis project.”
Janine cleared her throat as she searched for the right words to frame her response. “His project might have started as a joke, but it seems like he discovered something worthwhile after all,” she observed, rather proud of herself for putting it so diplomatically.
Charlie stopped in his tracks and simply stared at her, and then he burst out laughing. “Only you could make an analysis of ‘My Humps’ sound like a commendable endeavor,” he wheezed. “That song is so incredibly stupid – ”
“But his analysis of the added melody line was sound,” she broke in, “and he made a good point about the lyrics, and the commentary they provide on societal expectations of romantic relationships.”
He stopped laughing, but his bemused expression remained. “You’re serious, aren’t you,” he intoned incredulously.
She nodded, not quite understanding what was so amusing about the point she was trying to make. “Pop music is a reflection of – ”
She didn’t finish her thought, because before she realized what was happening, he’d wrapped his arms around her, bringing her body flush against his own, and had pressed his lips to hers with an intensity bordering on desperation. She flushed, a rush of euphoria flooding through her at the oddly familiar sensation of his mouth on hers, and she immediately flashed back to New Year’s Eve, and the kiss at the end of their impromptu meeting at Renwick’s.
She hadn’t been prepared for him to kiss her now, but she also wasn’t ready for it to end, and she sighed when she felt him break away.
“Has anyone ever told you,” he mused, “that your brain is your most attractive feature?”
She shook her head wordlessly, her breath shallow in her chest. He still lingered so close to her that she could feel his words forming against her lips. It was a strange sensation, but also a delicious one.
He chuckled. “Well, then,” he continued, “allow me to be the first.” He kissed her again, less urgent but no less intense, curling his hands over her neck and brushing his thumbs along the lines of her jaw.
She shivered in response, at a loss for words to describe the sensations swirling inside her. She’d been kissed before, but never like this – and it had never made her feel like this, all giddy and confused and hyperaware of the exact placement of every nerve ending in her body. “I don’t understand,” she breathed, breaking away herself this time and trying to regain her senses.
He chuckled softly. “You’re amazing, Janine,” he murmured, as if in awe of her. His eyes found and locked onto hers. “You can find meaning in the dumbest little things, and then explain it in such a way that makes me see it, too, from a whole different angle. You just have this – way about you. You make everything seem so interesting and unique and – ”
“And?” she broke in, a bit fearful of where this whispered confession could possibly be going.
“And I’ve spent the last six months trying to figure out how to tell you how very interested I am in you and your brain,” he concluded with a smile.
She drew her lower lip between her teeth as another flush crept up the back of her neck. “It seems, in general, that being direct usually works,” she managed to reply.
“Is this direct enough for you?” he inquired, capturing her lips in another sweet, sensuous kiss.
She felt her heart throbbing in her chest as she turned warm, then cold, then warm all over again. “I…think so,” she breathed.
He kissed her again. “So does this mean we can do this again sometime? Sooner, rather than later?”
“Mmm,” she mused, leaning into him and resting her head on his shoulder. “Do you mean, go out?”
“Yes,” he confirmed.
She considered his offer. “All right,” she agreed, “but only on one condition.”
He lifted an amused brow as she drew away from him. “What’s that?” he wanted to know.
“That we never have to double date with Sam and Stacey again,” she declared with a smile. “This evening has just been too – strange.”
He chuckled. “I agree,” he said. “Besides,” he added loftily, wrapping his arm around her waist as they turned towards Bradford Court, “I rather like the idea of having you all to myself.”
Janine smiled to herself as they began walking the quiet streets of Stoneybrook. I rather like that idea, too, she thought, circling her arm around him and pressing herself against him, especially since we have the whole summer to explore it.