The teacher assigns lab partners in bio the first day, and Nick is almost grateful they don’t get to pick their own, because he can’t decide whether he is hoping against hope that he will be partnered with Caroline or whether he’s hoping he’ll never have to speak to her again. Part of him thinks that if she’d just talk to him, they could work the whole thing out--surely there’s been some mistake and she’s just forgetting why she likes him so much. She’s forgetting why she likes Nick more than some senior from private school with skeezy facial hair and a motorcycle.
Winston told him, yesterday in Nick’s driveway, after the basketball bounced off the rim and into the gutter between the grass and cement, that that was bullshit. At ten years old, at twelve, even this time last year, an afternoon out in Nick’s driveway like that would have meant passing the ball back and forth, maybe playing horse. Last winter, though, Winston had become the basketball team’s surprise star, and now he calls hanging out in the front yard with the ball ‘training.’ When he’s feeling particularly insecure, Nick can’t help but wonder if it’s his basketball hoop that’s keeping their friendship going more than anything else. Caroline isn’t the only one who’s been changing.
Still, though, Winston is a pretty decent friend sometimes, and when he’d said that Nick was going to have to let it go, that he’d be happier, Nick pretty much believed him. Now he’s sitting in Bio, first day of class, letting a, “Not Caroline, not Caroline,” chant run through his head, but a tiny corner of his mind is thinking that if it is, then just maybe--when the teacher says his name, scans her class list and matches him up with, “Jessica Day,” his only real feeling is one of relief.
The relief doesn’t last too long, though--Schmidt pokes him in the back and snickers over his shoulder, staring at Nick’s new lab partner, who’s taken the piece of her own hair she’s been chewing on out of her mouth long enough to correct the teacher, “It’s Jess.”
“Jess, then,” Ms. Samuelson agrees, and goes back to her list, and Nick shoves Schmidt, who is still giggling like an idiot, and then Schmidt kicks Nick’s chair and Ms. Samuelson is glaring when she says, “Mr. Schmidt, you’ll be working with...” and scans down the list and Nick knows, he knows Schmidt is in for it now--he’d feel sorry for the guy, really he would, but it’s going to be hilarious. Only it doesn’t work like that. Ms. Samuelson’s eyes travel down the attendance list until she reaches a name that satisfies her, “Cece Meyers.”
That is totally unfair--Nick may still be missing Caroline, but he’s not blind or dead, and he’d need to be one or the other not to be harboring at least a little bit of a crush on Cece Meyers. Everyone is. She’s the lead in all of the school musicals and also the only reason anyone shows up to see them at all. She is tall and gorgeous and rumor has it she was away all summer because she was modeling in New York.
Cece sighs and rolls her eyes at Jess, who looks equally underwhelmed at the prospect. Schmidt is grinning like he just won the lottery, and Nick knows, he just knows, this is going to be a long semester.
“Jeez, Nick, you need to mix formula one with the sodium fully first and then add formula two!”
“I did! I totally did that!”
“Sure you did, Mister Grumpypants. That’s why there’s all the salt clumping up on the bottom, right?”
Nick kind of wants to be pissed--he doesn’t need this kind of shit, it’s not like this is actually a chemistry class, their assignment is not going to blow up, but that startles a laugh out of him. “Mister Grumpypants?”
“If you don’t like the name, you should stop acting like one,” Jess says, and she’s smiling sideways at him as she does, reaching over and taking over the stirring job from right out of his hands.
Nick tunes in to the conversation at the lab bench just behind theirs--Schmidt has been psyching himself up to ask Cece out for weeks, and he’s decided that today will be the day, and Nick thinks it’s kind of funny, but he’s also kind of nervous for Schmidt--Schmidt is his friend and he is about to get shot down so hard in a minute.
But Cece only says, “That’s very sweet, but I need to focus on my career right now,” which is so far from anything Nick even tried to prepare Schmidt for in terms of ways of getting rejected that it leaves him stammering, “Um, yeah, I mean, of course, that’s cool,” and then, a moment later, when he’s had time to think about what that might actually mean to a high school junior, “You mean the school musical?”
Nick catches Jess’s eye as she lifts her head from where she’s been peering into the microscope, and they both stifle laughter against hands, arms, sleeves.
Cece does mean the school musical--it’s kind of a pathetic undertaking, the same seven to ten kids every year, give or take a few, about half of them each with three or four different small roles to keep the play actually moving with, like, a plot and everything. It’s a pretty predictable mess, but Cece always takes it very seriously--Cece is always the star.
When she was a freshman, a few of the older kids resented this. They changed their tune, though, on opening night. For the first time they could remember, there were people buying tickets who were not their parents, not their few un-drama-affiliated friends. For the first time, they had an audience.
Sure, it was mostly a handful of freshman and sophomore boys who’d heard Cece talking about this particular show in class and wanted a look at those long, long legs in costume, since there was no way in hell they’d have a chance when she was not in costume, but hey. An audience was an audience. And just like that, a star was born.
Jess doesn’t mind the smaller roles, she tells Nick as they poke at their anaemic-looking little sprouting seedlings and make halfhearted notes. The fact that she gets so many parts means she gets the chance to show off her range. And Cece does look good in the slinky, spangly dresses. Dresses like that would never look good with Jess’s glasses.
“You could get contacts,” says Nick, distracted by what looks like the teeth marks of some little bug, not thinking. He replays what he’s just said when Jess says, all deliberate and calm, “You think I need contacts?” and winces. That is not the kind of thing you say to a girl, his mother would be ashamed.
He says, “I--of course not, Jess. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean--” but she’s laughing again (she laughs a lot, Nick is finding). “I really had you going, there, didn’t I?”
Nick nods, reluctantly. “You thought I was pissed. That you agreed with me!” she shakes her head like she has just never heard anything that ridiculous and asks Nick, “You’re kind of messed up, aren’t you?”
Nick doesn’t have a date to the Homecoming dance, but this is mostly because the homecoming dance is not the kind of thing you actually have a date to at their school--you just sort of go. Apparently no one told Caroline that, though. She’s got tall, dark and nerdy with her and if this is the motorcycle-owning senior, Nick is going to be so pissed. He could totally take this guy.
He thinks. He’s never actually been in a fight, but he isn’t the kind of dude a ten mile an hour wind could blow away, which he figures would have to work in his favor. Or would work in his favor, if fighting the guy would actually get him Caroline back, which it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t work and would probably actually be a bad thing, he can hear Jess in his head already, telling him that that attitude towards women is objectifying and uncool, and Nick needs to get out of here, he didn’t come here to watch Caroline whispering things in the ear of the new guy, who probably has a moped and just calls it a motorcycle. Nick would bet actual money on that.
He makes his way over to the tragically unspiked punch, silently regretting that he’d forbidden Schmidt from smuggling that flask he’d stolen from his older cousin filled with his mom’s boxed wine. He might not have gotten caught. And if he had, it would have been Schmidt in trouble, not Nick.
He sees Jess near the refreshments table, skulking in a corner. It’s weird, he swears she just told him yesterday that she wasn’t planning on coming to the dance. “The Homecoming game is bad enough,” she’d said, and he’d remembered, with a start, why she’d looked so familiar the first day of class--she’s the marching band girl.
He’d tried not to look like he was only just realizing, tried to stay casual as he’d said, “Yeah, you’re on the drum line, right?”
It had apparently been the right thing to say--she’d beamed at him before launching into a monologue about the way the mud on the field was getting all cold now that it was October, how the football players really weren’t very appreciative, what with the way the band was really only out there to support them.
Yeah, Nick definitely remembers this conversation, which is why he doesn’t expect to see Jess leaning against a wall with a put-upon expression on her face. Still, she’s the friendliest face he sees around, what with Caroline holding court and Winston and Coach out on the dance floor and Schmidt having disappeared god knows where--Nick hopes he’s not with Gretchen. She always destroys his self-esteem.
Nick wanders over, tells her, “I didn’t think you were coming.”
Jess laughs, but it sounds a lot less amused than usual. “Neither did I.”
Nick nods. “I wasn’t going to,” she goes on, and Nick knew he wasn’t going to have to do more than that to prompt her--if there’s one thing he’s learning about Jess, it’s that the girl can talk. “Cece wanted me to come play bodyguard or something, and I wasn’t going to, I’m seriously trying not to be such a pushover, but--at the game today.”
“Yeah?” Nick prompts her, not really sure what’s going on. Jess has never stopped talking to him mid-story before, come hell, high water, or the bell signaling the end of the period.
Jess scowls at the floor, says, “He doesn’t even go to our school, I don’t know why he was at the game,” and Jess has mentioned her ex before once or twice. Nick always thought he sounded like kind of a dweeb. A dweeb from a different school. Who was at their homecoming, and--
“Get you dweeby ex-boyfriend off of Caroline.”
He doesn’t mean to say it, is just comes out that way. It makes Jess pretty much speechless, though, which is a first. “Nick,” she says uncertainly.
“Your ex was all over my ex and it needs to stop, Jess,” Nick says, totally serious. This is vitally important here, but Jess obviously doesn’t take him seriously, just says, “If she’s been touching Spencer, you don’t want a girl with his jerkface germs all over her,” and okay, maybe Nick isn’t being completely fair to Jess tonight--she’s going through the same thing he is, pretty much, and she’s doing the honorable thing and hiding behind the punch bowl, instead of blaming innocent bystanders, like Nick is.
Caroline laughs from across the room and he hates that he knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that it’s her without even looking. He asks Jess, “Want to get out of here?” before he can think too much about it.
When Nick said, “Get out of here,” he really didn’t mean, “Go down to the basement under the auditorium to hang out in the drama club’s costume room,” but apparently Jess has a key and Nick doesn’t have any better ideas, and at least down here it’s pretty much guaranteed that Nick won’t run into anyone he knows, which is nice. He really doesn’t feel equipped to have actual conversations just now.
That’s the nice thing about Jess, really--she’s capable of keeping a conversation going all on her own with only minimal participation from Nick as they pad down the dark hallways, walls echoing around them and Nick has never been through here with the school so deserted, but it’s actually kind of nice, he takes a moment to appreciate the fact that they’re here in the dark and quiet on the other side of the building from the packed gymnasium hung with pastel streamers. Jess unlocks the door to the stairs behind the stage in the auditorium, and Nick has never been back here before.
The costume room is a disorganized cement basement filled with second hand clothes, the school’s band uniforms from the eighties, a couple of moth-eaten, mascot-style animal costumes, and a rack of dresses in various states of wear, stain and decade-of-origin.
Nick sits down on a crate and starts idly picking through a box of props--sparkly New Years cardboard tophats and brightly colored sunglasses. Jess glances at what he’s looking at, laughs and says, “Yeah, aren’t they great? We used them in the revue last year.”
Jess herself is looking through the rack of dresses slowly, methodically, as if she’s not really quite sure what they are or what they’re for. Her hand stops at a green dress, a kind of shiny fabric with the type of hem that’s all long on one side and short on the other. It looks a lot more like something to wear to a dance than the bright, striped cotton sundress Jess has on under her sweater. She’s looking at the dress with a kind of longing on her face, so when she turns back to Nick, looking all determined, he’s not surprised.
She tells him, “Turn around, I’m going to try this on,” and, after he stands and does so, “No peeking.”
Nick thinks if he were another kind of guy--if he were Schmidt, maybe, he’d already be looking. If he were Winston, he’d have made a joke when she’d told him to turn that would have made her feel like she didn’t even mind when he peeked. He’s just Nick, though, so he stands and waits as Jess rustles around behind him, then stumbles, then, from the sound of it, falls into a wall, exclaims something that sounds suspiciously like, “Sugar!” rights herself and moves on. He waits until after the sound of movement and changing ends, waits while the silence stretches, waits until Jess says, “Okay.”
That’s when he turns, and he thinks maybe this is supposed to be the moment of transformation. Jess is holding her arms out, asking him, “So? How do I look?” and all he can think of is, “Like yourself.”
Jess’s shoulders droop at that, and then snap up again after a second, jumping in time with her eyebrows in realization. She reaches up, pulls off her glasses and sort of squints in Nick’s direction, asking, “Now?” in a kind of hopeful tone of voice, and this wasn’t what Nick meant at all.
He steps forward, walks until he’s near enough that he can take her glasses from her hand, set them on her face again, only that’s actually really awkward, it turns out that putting glasses on someone who is not yourself is really difficult and he almost pokes her in the eye and she laughs and he steps even closer while she’s laughing and she’s just so bright, all the time. He tells her, “Looking like yourself is a good thing, Jess. You’re pretty great.”
She huffs out another laugh, this one softer and a bit incredulous. “Well, I know that. You don’t, though.”
Nick has never liked being told who he is or what he knows. He lifts one hand, tapping his index finger lightly against the side of her face where the metal arm of her glasses rests against it, and leans in.
Kissing Jess is different from kissing Caroline mostly because he doesn’t feel like he’s auditioning, though if any kiss is going to be an audition, it stands to reason that it ought to be a first kiss, like this one. Jess is wearing cherry chapstick, Nick can taste it on his own lips when he pulls away. He asks, “Okay?” and doesn’t even really know what he’s asking.
Jess seems to, though, because she smiles at him, wide and sincere. She says, “Of course. Silly.”
When they finally make it back to the dance, the gym is mostly empty. A slow song is playing and a few couples are still swaying to it resolutely, including, “Is that--that can’t be. Is that Cece and Schmidt?”
Jess looks as puzzled as Nick feels, though she just says, “I guess I did say I’d look out for her tonight, and then I--”
She trails off and smiles, but she still looks uncertain. At that moment, though, Cece spots them from across the room, raises her head off of Schmidt’s shoulder enough to smile at them. Jess’s own smile looks stronger after that, though she does still seem determined to get home by curfew for some reason Nick doesn’t quite get. She says, “I’ll see you Monday?” and Nick nods, knows he’s smiling back like an idiot.
Jess leans in again, though, kisses his cheek, quick and bashful, and tells him, “I’ll catch you later, Mister.”